Sunday, December 28, 2008

Heroism in a bottle

It's been a good Sunday for me. Blogging and football. I saw my hometown team the Indianapolis Colts shut out the Tennessee Titans lead largely by their back-up quarterback Jim Sorgi who is usually as "adequate." I also caught the end of a the Tampa Bay/Oakland game where a team who had a bad season and nothing to gain from winning ended the other's play-off dreams by just going for it.

But there was one game today that caught my attention more so than any others. Miami Dolphins against the New York Jets. There were some x-factors which both did and didn't come into play but essentially you had two teams from two different divisions who each had their own divisional playoff position on the line. But beyond that there was a personal angle.

Chad Pennington was the quarterback for the Jets for a number of years but in the pre-season the team was given the opportunity to pick up a veteran who'd just had a season better than anyone his age had any right to in the person of Brett Favre who returned from an extremely short retirement. Due to salary cap regulations and some other factors that meant Pennington was expendable.
The previous season however was not so kind to the Miami Dolphins who had a record of 1-15, a record so dismal the only team to ever sport a worse record is this years winless Detroit Lions. In the off season a major rebuilding would be required, the final piece of the puzzle was in the form of the recently released Chad Pennington.
The season opener for these two teams was against each other, and ironically the regular season ends this way as well. The Dolphins of course got off to a slow start losing the season opener and a number of early games. Meanwhile the Favre lead Jets had a great deal of early success. But as the season wore on things began to change.
Favre had always been known as a big yardage passer and in fact he holds a number of NFL career records He holds a number of NFL records including: most career touchdown passes (463), most career passing yards (64,707), most career pass completions (5,682), most career pass attempts (9,209), most career interceptions thrown (305). That last one is the one which made the difference however, since his later games this season were marked by numerous interceptions.
Meanwhile Pennington was known as a very conservative player, he didn't always go for big yardage every time out but by the beginning of this season he was the most accurate passer in the league and this season didn't change this fact. That coupled with a hungry Dolphins desperate to shake the label of "worst team" and one of the most innovative offenses in the league built around techniques like running wildcat plays where the runningback takes the snap rather than the quarterback lead to a huge turnaround. The team went from 1-15 to 11-5 in one season.
This brings me back to today's game. Ending the season like it started with the playoffs on the line. For their first meeting the Dolphins came up short but now the Dolphins knew what they were doing and Favre was showing his age. It was a tense game where the lead changed hands a few times but the Dolphins made the playoffs and even though they were already out due to another team winning the Jets were not.

After the win there was the characteristic excessive humbleness but you could tell it was an emotional moment for Pennington. He proved his old team made a mistake letting him go and to paraphrase his own words he filled a gap in a hungry team dying for some leadership.

Moments like this show you why sports are so important in our society. It's very rare that we really give ourselves permission to see people as heroes. In fiction it's often limited to highly unrealistic fantasy which often gets dismissed. In real life where standard morality applies the people that are presented as heroes just don't inspire admiration, charity workers, social activists.

There's just something so clean and right about admiring an athlete. These are people who work harder than most of us can imagine to do something that most of them love doing and they're payed exceptionally well for it. And the whole idea of what sports are is a thing of beauty. You're creating situations for the sole purpose of having heroes rise out of them. Whether it's the Miami Dolphins coming back from a terrible season or last year's New England Patriots striving for perfection there are just so many clean moral situations where greatness can arise from and so many ways to hope for it.

Granted there's a bit of ugliness to it as well, I hate to use the term but towards the end of last season tall poppy syndrome seemed to take effect on the Patriots. And it continued this year when their star quarterback Tom Brady was injured in the first drive of the first game of the season.

But you're never going to tell me something that lets people become this open of hero worshipers is a bad thing. Sports involve humanity at it's best both on the field and in the stands. People capable of amazing feats of physical prowess and even more amazingly people capable of admiring this.