As fans, the sports calendar serves such a valuable purpose as an organizational tool -- as a way to mark the seasons, as a way to track the slowly decaying nature of age -- that having one of its seasons truncated almost feels like a crime against time itself.
If everything goes right, it all flows together. January and early February wrap up the football seasons, with the college basketball tournament leading us into spring training and opening day, which take us through the summer (as the NBA playoffs usher us in), with the baseball postseason taking us into the holidays, with the football seasons ringing in the new year. These aren't the centerpieces of our lives, just the background hum, the ongoing plotlines that keep each day easing into the next, serial dramas that never end. I find them comforting and stable.
Only two things can upset the sports fan calendar. The first are labor strikes, which is why I didn't even bother mentioning hockey in the preceding paragraph. (I am not a hockey expert, but it's difficult to imagine how any sports league could be more self-destructive than the NHL right now. The only equivalent I can imagine is Bud Selig coming out and saying, "The last 11 World Series were all rigged so I could personally make millions on side bets. I am now retiring to live on the moon. Your new commissioner is former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Also, all the players are secretly robots, but they're nevertheless still all on steroids.") The second is sometimes even worse: When your team is so terrible that the season is over before half the games have been played.
I have no advice for you on the first matter -- the only logical response to labor strife in sports is to stop watching sports altogether, and that's not going to happen -- but I have decades of experience in the latter. Yesterday afternoon, my beloved Arizona Cardinals lost 31-17 at home to the St. Louis Rams to drop to 4-7 on the year. It was their seventh consecutive loss after four wins to start the season, securing what I had already knew but refused to admit: For the third straight year, the Arizona Cardinals will not be making the playoffs. (There's actually still a chance, I discover, from ESPN's handy NFL Playoff Machine. They just have to win their next five games and get a couple of losses from Tampa Bay. NO PROBLEM! )
This is something I am all too familiar with: The Cardinals have failed to make the playoffs 27 of the last 30 years. And, as often been the case during those seasons, they didn't even make it to December with any hopes left. That's a whole month of sporting calendar, just obliterated because of incompetence. The Cardinals are hardly alone in this. Fans of the Bills, Jets, Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Chargers, Raiders, Chiefs, Eagles, Lions and Panthers are all essentially in the same boat. (And in the NBA, well, I suppose Wizards fans are already there too.) The season is over. There is nothing left to cheer for.
As an expert in the field of cheering for a team so lousy that the last month is meaningless, I can help here. Not every fan is a publicity-seeking caricature like Fireman Ed: We love our teams unconditionally, if not necessarily rationally. So here are some handy hints for how to deal with December, when your team is done.
Do not cheer for your team to lose. This is the fundamental one; if you follow this one, the rest should be easy. I know that there are arguments to be made for fantanking -- cheering for your team to lose for a better draft pick next year -- and I think the best argument you can make are the 2012 Indianapolis Colts. But I still don't understand this. When you're a fan of a football team, you are a fan 365 days out of the year. Of those 365 days, only 16 of them feature actual, live football games that matter. (Well, theoretically, at least.) If you are choosing one of those 16 days to cheer against the team you purportedly root for, I can't help but question how much of a fan you really are. I've tried so, so hard to root against the Cardinals for draft-pick purposes over the last decades, and I just can never do it. I can't keep up that much negative energy for that long. This draft-pick business tends to work itself out, 2012 Indianapolis Colts excepted.
Don't worry so much about young players. The idea is always that when a team is out of the playoff chase, they can play all their rookies and prospects, "learn what we have in the system," and so on. This rarely works out: Usually, if these rookies and prospects were truly future building blocks, they would have been good enough for your team to win more games in the first place. Plus, it's football: Half these guys will be lucky to walk in two years. The team you have now is going to be different than the one you have in two years, whether your team is good or not. Embrace the now.
Savor every second. A month from now, there will be no football. The NFL will enter its "middle-aged men talking endlessly about football on television even though there is no football" phase. This is the NFL at its worst. You will miss these actual games, even if they are games your team is losing. Enjoy! Sports are fun!
Never lose hope. I know the season is over. I know the Cardinals aren't coming back. But what if they did?! They could! I ran it through the Playoff Machine. There are all kinds of possibilities. And even if they're eliminated … what if one of the playoffs teams decides it doesn't want to play? What if there's a presidential edict forbidding the Seahawks from the postseason? It could happen! Someone will have to play those games instead. Might as well be my team!
It doesn't make any sense, and it's completely irrational. In other words: It's what being a sports fan is all about.
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"Fantanking." It's funny how a whole sports term can be invented just because Bill Simmons is sad about his team. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.