Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Very Good Year

It’s always interesting when the post-game conversation is less about who won than whether they should have scored so much. (Or not.) Brett Favre threw a short touchdown pass to Visanthe Shiancoe with little less than two minutes to play in Minnesota’s lop-sided victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which seemed to some observers like gilding the lily. Or rubbing salt in the wound. Or running up the score. But when you’re trying to run out the clock, scoring seven points on fourth down would seem to be a safer strategy than attempting to hammer out another first down on the ground. Though some of the Cowboys referred to it as “classless” they might just as well have taken it as a sign of respect. Perhaps being ahead by only 24 struck the Vikings as dangerous when facing “the hottest team in football.” A lot can happen in 115 seconds, you know. And if the Cowboys had given up the game for lost, they wouldn’t have used their three time-outs and the game would already have been over.

What’s truly classless is for sportswriters such as Baltimore’s Larry Harris to remind us that way back in 1964, Cleveland Browns quarterback Frank Ryan totally destroyed the Baltimore Colts, 27-0, for the NFL championship. A few weeks later, Ryan was buried in a pile-up during the Pro Bowl and emerged with a severely discombobulated throwing shoulder. The Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti, whom Harris refers to as “great,” was part of that pile, and Harris presumes that the injury was inflicted in retaliation for the fact that the Browns had “run up the score” a few weeks earlier. A truly disgusting story if it happens to be true. Scoring points is part of football, after all. That’s what decides who the winner is, and that’s what the fans come to see. On the other hand, inflicting injury intentionally and maliciously out of spite or wounded pride is a matter for the police to investigate.

The first few weeks of the Vikings season consisted of Brett Favre handing off the ball to Adrian Peterson and throwing screens, but within a month under Favre’s experienced wing, the Vikings found themselves suddenly endowed with a full contingent of outstanding receivers including Shiancoe, Sidney Rice, and Percy Harvin—not to mention Bernard Berrian, who had formerly been the Vikings’ go-to guy. Favre was very good at seizing opportunities and he made very few mistakes, but it was truly astounding to watch the receivers pull in catches again and again that no one had made since the days when Randy Moss wore purple.

As the year progressed, opposing defenses did a good job of bottling up Peterson, though he still averaged 114 total yards per game and scored a league-leading 18 touchdowns, and the attention he received undoubtedly made it easier for Favre to find an open man downfield. Yet the victory over Dallas was a showcase for the defense, with the Vikings’ touchdowns slipping in here and there almost inadvertently. The end result is that even though the Vikings have defeated their last two venerable opponents, the Giants and the Cowboys, by a combined score of 78 – 10, they arrive in New Orleans as underdogs.

All well and good. They’re a respectable 11-0 on artificial turf this year. And we don’t need to worry about them getting infatuated by their own hype, because the story has always been mostly about Old Man Favre. However the game turns out, the season has been full of those remarkable football moments—classic broken-field runs and aerial displays—that kept me wandering back into the room to see what was going on.