NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl
To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss the Super Bowl and the upcoming NFL labor negotiations on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen." Click the arrow on the audio player below:
You can also download the podcast, or you can subscribe to the weekly Hang Up and Listen podcast feed in iTunes.
Also in Slate, the best and worst Super Bowl commercials.
Football depends on the unity of 11 players on each play. If one of the 11 isn't up to the task, the play typically falls apart. The irony is that every single play falls apart at some point, from somebody's perspective. If you are a defensive coach and your linebackers can't get off of their blocks, then your linebackers failed and the defense got gashed. The same play from the offensive perspective: Everyone did their job and the play worked.
I want to emphasize this point of view, Stefan, because I don't want the individual superstar narrative to overwhelm the cohesive, team-first concept that defines football success. Is this my way of dodging your question, because I know Jay Cutler personally and would prefer not to respond to the vitriolic stories about his personality? Absolutely. It puts me in a difficult place.
There are egos at work on both sides here. The journalist/athlete relationship is a tricky one, and it always has been. The writer feels that the athlete owes him a little respect. After all, it's the media that makes athletes accessible to the fans who want to love him. But the athlete resents writers for that sense of entitlement. He resents the fact that he has to answer the question no matter how leading or how insulting or how wrong it might be—that he has to deal with questions he knows are bullshit.
Jay's aloofness with the media—his unwillingness to engage with reporters on even the most basic human level—is obviously unflattering. But speculating about why Jay is that way is an empty pursuit. He certainly isn't going to tell you why. Rick Reilly's evisceration of Cutler revealed more about Reilly's sense of entitlement than it did about Jay's. Having heard the rumors about Jay, it seemed that Reilly thought he would ride into town on the heels of his own reputation and get Jay to open right up. Heart-warming, long-held insecurities would be revealed, chased with boxes of Kleenex and a new chapter in Reilly's next book, Athletes Hate Journalists, But They Love Me. He couldn't mask his annoyance that Jay would reject him. And his goal, quite childishly, was to make people hate Jay.
This whole fiasco pops the top off of a pro sports truism: The athlete is not who you think he is, and that just hurts. But don't hate the player when you find out that he didn't graduate college, isn't a very nice guy, has six kids by four women, doesn't attend charitable events, and hates cats. Of course, if an athlete breaks the law, he should be punished for it. But the impossibly robotic, clean-cut image that the NFL pushes—especially for its quarterbacks—is a recipe for disappointment. Whether it's a player getting arrested or an interview that doesn't go so well, it doesn't take much to destroy pro football's carefully built mirage of touchdown passes and deodorant commercials.
Back on the field, I agree with you, Stefan, that Aaron Rodgers looks like the phenom of the remaining four quarterbacks. He appears unflappably calm and comfortable with his offense. That's in large part because the Packers have the best wide receiver corps in the league, hardworking playmakers that rarely get the credit they deserve.
As a team, Green Bay has a hefty amount of mojo on its side. I'm guessing that everyone in the Packers locker room believes, after a trying season and consecutive road playoff wins, that they are going to find a way to win next weekend no matter what. I'm not sure Chicago can match that. In the NFL, where the talent level is virtually the same across the league, mojo becomes very powerful. Getting 53 grown, jaded men moving in the same direction is hard enough. If you get them to do so enthusiastically, they are very hard to stop. That's especially true in the playoffs, as evidenced by the Jets' dismantling of the Patriots. The taunting, trash-talking Jets were the far more enthusiastic team, and that goes a long way.
It's the coach's job to change his message ever so slightly to capture the urgency of the moment and excite his players. Nobody seems better equipped for that job than Rex Ryan. So, this weekend, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Packers and Jets—the two sixth-seeded road teams—each win again and meet in the Super Bowl. The Jets will have a harder time than the Packers, though. The Steelers' defense is light-years ahead of the Patriots' D—against Pittsburgh, Mark Sanchez won't have that extra second to check his second and third reads. He'll have to think and react faster, and I'm sure Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will help out his quarterback with max-protections and three-step drops. But if the Jets get behind early, they're going to have to sling it, and that might be their downfall. I really hope that doesn't happen, though, because who really wants to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl again?
Yep, you can put it in ink—it'll be the Packers vs. the Jets. Er, sorry, Aaron Rodgers vs. Mark Sanchez. Let's check back in next week to see just how wrong I was.
Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.