Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

SPORTS >> Colts win gamble on imperfection

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sports editor

I had wanted to use this space for a nice end-of-year column full of inaccuracies and smarmy clichés, like what the big-time sports columnists write.

But then, on Sunday evening, I logged on to my favorite social networking site and opened my fat mouth about the cowardly Indianapolis Colts, and Facebook swiftly became In Your Face-book.

Since I’m not going to miss 2009 all that much, for a whole list of reasons that includes the recent weather, I’d rather skip the sentimentality and keep the debate going.

What do you say? Let’s send out the year with fireworks instead of champagne.

A few of my long-distance friends, including one expatriate Buffalo Bills fan living in Indianapolis, took issue with me for calling out the Colts over their decision to sacrifice a perfect season rather than risk their star players (i.e. Peyton Manning) in a “meaningless” regular-season game.

With Manning, who has passed for 4,405 yards and 33 touchdowns on the sideline for most of the second half Sunday, the Colts, who had clinched every possible playoff advantage, lost a 15-10 lead and were beaten 29-15 by the New York Jets.

The Colts fell to 14-1, gave the Jets a leg up to the playoffs and snarled things for several other teams.

And there, once again, went the chance to see something special in the NFL.

The league, with its explosive graphics and hyperbolic announcers, keeps telling us we’re watching the best sport in the world and just when we start to believe it, one of its best teams blows its chance to do something spectacular and just dares to be good.

I’m already on record as saying I wanted to see a perfect team win the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1972 Miami Dolphins went 16-0. With the modern, expanded schedule, the Colts, had they gone all the way, would have been the first team to finish 19-0.

But with his team leading by five, first-year coach Jim Caldwell pulled Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai to preserve them for the postseason run and the Jets rallied.

I’m not irrational. I get it. You lose a lot of money and prestige if you don’t win the big one, and you aren’t going to win it if you get key players hurt. You could be the Icarus of pro football, crashing to the ground with your wings aflame because you dared to touch the sun.

But what if everyone thought that way?

What if NASA held back Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from walking on the moon because they were thinking about the long-term future of the space program?

What if Eisenhower decided not to go for it in Normandy because the weather reports were bad and he didn’t want to risk lives or his own military career?

You have to gamble to be great.

The space program gambled the lives of it astronauts and billions of dollars in the name of exploration and to capture the awe and imagination of the entire world.

Eisenhower gambled the lives of thousands of young men in order to free thousands more innocents who were living, or dying, under the tyranny of a few.

Are these extreme examples? After all we’re just talking about a silly game.

But that’s my point.

If you can’t take a risk and gamble to be great in a silly game, when can you?

There is a Super Bowl champion every year, but, as the creaky-kneed veterans of the 1972 Dolphins like to point out, there aren’t that many perfect teams.

Disappointed Colts fans booed their team Sunday, and I don’t condone such disloyalty, but I understand how they feel. So do the Colts.

“I probably would have booed too,” center Jeff Saturday said. “I don’t blame them. They pay to come see us win games and we didn’t get it done.”

My Bills-loving friend in Indianapolis said the Colts’ fans need to keep their eyes on the “prize” which, presumably, is the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

That sounds a lot to me like the great line from Peter Gent’s dark and disturbing pro football novel “North Dallas Forty.”

“Every time I call it a game you call it a business,” a player screams at a coach after a tough loss. “And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

Sure the prize is the Super Bowl championship, but I submit the prize is also that bonus money (winning players got $83,000 each last year), that contract negotiation leverage, those commercial endorsements and that big bump in a team’s merchandising revenues.

Those are nice things for the players, coaches, front office personnel and owners, but what do the fans get?

The fans get good, but not great. They get 18-1, if they’re lucky.

Oh well, we didn’t want those moon rocks anyway.