Football: We’re Never Happy (Jan 9, 2010)

We’re never happy.  What is our fascination with controversy? Is it that identifying problems and proposing solutions makes us feel smart?

Maybe a good New Year’s Resolution for football fans this year would be to take time to revel in all that is good about both college and pro football in the coming year.

Over the last few weeks football fans have been abuzz about the Indianapolis Colts resting their players in their second to last game against the NY Jets and then, having lost that game, in their last game as well. The Colts’ reasoning was that they wanted to avoid putting their most important players in situations where they could get injured when winning those individual games wasn’t important.  And they were right—winning those games wasn’t important.  In the NFL all a team needs to do is make the playoffs in order to have a chance to become champion. The Steelers the 2009 Super Bowl as the 5th seed (out of 6). Last year, the Cardinals finished the regular season about as poorly as a team can and made it to the Super Bowl. The playoffs are called the Second Season for a reason:  all things are new again. Playoffs are a tournament and each team starts 0 and 0.

Since the ultimate goal is to win the post season tournament, fans should expect the duality we saw the Colts manifest last month: 1) make the tournament; 2) win the tournament. Those are the goals as the season starts. That’s the approach that makes the most sense.

Thursday night Alabama played Texas for college football’s national championship.  Fans of Cincinnati (before their smackdown at the hands of Florida), TCU and Boise State argued that they, all as undefeated teams, had a right to play for the national championship.  But the BCS system that’s in place doesn’t work that way. The tension in college football is always making the distinction between identifying the best team and rewarding the best season. TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati all had excellent seasons but few thought any of them was the best team. Despite an absence of regular season losses, their arguments lacked legitimacy because their records accrued against lesser competition and those three teams were left out of the championship game.

Many want college football to have a playoff system—a tournament. But without a tournament, every game counts. A loss in September can eliminate a team from national championship contention before the leaves start to change color. Every game counts. Could you ever imagine a college team with national championship aspirations resting its players in the season’s final games?

The beauty of college football is that its system is more likely to identify the season’s best team than the pro football system. Pro football’s playoff is designed to crown a tournament champion, not come to a conclusion about which team is best. Does anyone think the Giants were a better team than the Patriots two years ago?  If those teams had played five games, the Patriots would have won four of them. But the Giants won the tournament.

If college football gets a playoff system, what might next year’s Michigan/Ohio State game look like? Michigan, still rebuilding under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, may well be 8 and 3 and ranked #15 going into the Ohio State game.  Ohio State, a perennial national championship contender, may well be 11 and 0 and ranked third in the nation.  Most pundits propose an eight team playoff, so UM would be definitely out of playoff contention and OSU definitely in. Will Ohio State rest its players in arguably one of the biggest rivalry games in all of college football?  Why would they risk injury with a first round playoff game against a team like Oklahoma coming up the next week?

Thursday night college football gave us, in all likelihood, the two best teams playing so that one team could lay claim to a national championship. Neither team rested its players in the quest for the championship because every game counted.

Tonight the NFL starts its post season tournament which could eventually lead to a New York Jets/Arizona Cardinals Super Bowl.  I contend that the most exciting game—the game NFL fans really want to see– is the regular season’s best teams: the Colts vs the Saints (or Vikings).

The NFL gives us a tournament and winning that tournament is the goal. We should relish the fact that the NFL has a tournament so that many good teams have a chance to participate in an compete for title of “champion” in one of sports’ best competitions. College football gives us the best teams competing for the championship every year. They don’t rest players and the biggest game will always have the all the star power fans want in the pre-game buildup.

Each is excellent for its own reasons. Rather than wish that every pro game mattered (as much as they do in college) and that college had a tournament (like they do in the pros) maybe we’d do better to relish in the excitement that each system already gives us in their differing approaches.

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Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Hi Drexel, I listened to a long argument about just this issue on NPR on Friday. Your comments here bring up the most important question to me – what is it that we are aiming for (college only is what I’m speaking to – I don’t care about professional football)here> To discover the best team (whatever that means) OR the team with the best season, regardless of the competition?! I, of course, don’t really care – I just wish NCAA (and the advertisers!) would make up their mind.


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