Friday, October 03, 2008

A Tale of Three Cities...

Three of the football teams I follow all recorded important victories over the past weekend, but those victories couldn't have been more dissimilar. However, there were still common threads and themes between the three games.

First, there was Queen's 43-16 win over Western [myself, Queen's Journal] Saturday. This was particularly interesting, especially when you consider that Western was favoured by many going in. However, the score was rather deceiving.

Queen's offence was missing in action for most of the day, and only created 295 net yards and 18 first downs against Western's 510 net yards and 33 first downs. The lopsided victory was mostly due to the excellent field position Queen's offence was given by Western's 12 turnovers and inability to convert in the red zone. The strong efforts from Queen's defence and special teams also came in handy in terms of field position.

The game was also made more of a blowout by Western head coach Greg Marshall's decision to keep gambling on third downs in an attempt to come back. Five of those 12 turnovers came off turnovers on downs (another three were on lost fumbles and the final four were interceptions). Marshall said after the game [myself, this blog] that he'd rather try risky offensive strategies in an attempt to come back instead of playing it safe to try and keep the score close.

"I don't care if we lose by 100 points. I never do," he said. "We're not going to win the game by punting the football away."

I thoroughly approve: as ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook wrote in his excellent Tuesday Morning Quarterback column a few weeks back, too many coaches are more concerned with keeping the score close in a defeat than trying to win the game. As such, they opt for the safe punts late in the game, even though those do absolutely nothing for their chances of winning. Marshall doesn't subscribe to that theory, and his team lost big as a result, but they could have easily pulled off a comeback win thanks to his bold strategy if a few plays in the third quarter had turned out differently. It's good to see a coach willing to take some risks, and it's important to keep in mind that those gambles led to the one-sided nature of the final score, perhaps making this appear a more decisive victory than it really was. It was a deserved win for the Gaels and an important one, but not the rout the scoreboard seemingly indicated.

The weekend's second blowout victory was less illusory, even though the score was closer. The B.C. Lions destroyed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail] 40-10 Saturday night, and this one was decided almost right after the kickoff. As Ed Willes of the Vancouver Province wrote after the game, "Two minutes and 14 seconds into the contest at B.C. Place Stadium, the affair lost all pretense of suspense and took on the dreary predictability of a Russian novel, which, come to think of it, is the way most games involving the Ticats have played out over the last seven years."

From a B.C. fan's standpoint, this kind of win was probably good to see, especially considering that it completed the Lions' perfect record in September. It also improved their overall record to 8-5, moving them into a tie for second in the powerful West with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, only one win behind the 9-4 Calgary Stampeders. Still, it came over the 2-11 Tiger-Cats, so it should be taken with a large seasoning of salt. As Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail wrote early in September, right after the Tiger-Cats fired Charlie Taaffe and immediately after their last horrible loss to B.C., "The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are terrible, again; they have hit the panic button, again; they are playing out the string, again; and their abused fan base is having its faith severely tested, again." This franchise has been so horrible for so long that it's hard to take them seriously. Thus, the euphoria needs to be kept in check.

The third crucial game of the weekend saw the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Baltimore Ravens [Alan Robinson, The Associated Press via The Globe and Mail] 23-20 on Monday Night Football, thanks to an overtime field goal by Jeff Reed. This was the least decisive victory of the three, especially considering that the Steelers were heavily favoured going in and they only managed to win thanks to a tremendous second-half comeback. In essence, they pulled off what the Mustangs could only come close to against Queen's.

This game really showcased how fast everything can change in football. For the entire first half, all the commentary centred on how overrated the Steelers were, how good Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco was and how effective the Ravens' defence was proving against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offensive line. In the second half, Flacco began to make bad decisions, the Steelers' offensive line started to bear up under the pressure, and Roethlisberger picked apart the Ravens' defence, nullifying most of the storylines of the game.

Michael Wilbon, an ESPN commentator who's also a tremendous columnist for the Washington Post, made a great point here about how all the writers at the game were starting to scrap their columns after the half, something I've always found very interesting. With the instant nature of deadlines these days, reporters and columnists frequently have to have their pieces almost completely written before the final whistle. I've done this myself on many occasions, and it's no problem in the case of a blowout (such as Queen's 58-14 win over U of T [myself, Out of Left Field], where I had to file right at the end of the game in order to catch the bus back], but it's much more difficult in a close contest. The brilliant Joe Posnanski described this much better than I ever could in this post. Here's the highlights, about the Yankees' stunning comeback in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series:

"Now at this point I should mention that experienced sportswriter — that is, sportswriters smarter than me — have a little trick they use when on a pushbutton deadline. They write what I like to call the adjustable column. That is they write a column that leans one way but, in case of emergency, glass can be broken, verbs can be reversed, adjectives can be turned and so on. I did none of these things, of course. The ultra-rich Yankees finally going down — and to a team in only its fourth year of existence — deserved something more than an adjustable column. It deserved the works. And so I wrote it, the Yankees is dead, it’s been a nice run, the Diamondbacks had too much pitching, hell, I don’t remember it all but I know it was confident and unwavering and Kim got Jeter out on a bunt, he struck out Bernie, man on, two outs in the ninth and I was about to send the thing …

And you know what happened. Tino hit the home run. Yankee Stadium went nuts, I guess, though I don’t remember that. Here’s what I remember: Staring at my screen at all these little words I had written, words that now might as well be in Pig Latin, words that now looked like the code in the Matrix, words that could not possibly be more worthless. I remember that feeling … like my head was about to explode. I remember looking to see if I had left any adjustable sentences in the column (“The Yankees are NOT dead?”). I remember going into a few seconds of sheer panic. I had no column. Nothing. If the Yankees won the game (and of course they would win now) I had absolutely nothing to send to the paper.*

*I’ve had nightmares like this … seriously. A lot of sportswriter friends have had nightmares like this — deadline hits, and you have a blank screen and no idea what to write and no clue what to do. I think this is the sportswriter version of the go to work in your underwear dream.

So … what to do? Well, of course I started a new file and just began typing madly, something, anything, whatever thought came to mind, not unlike this blog I suppose. It was sheer stream of consciousness, nothing but typing, and when Derek Jeter hit his home run with two outs in the bottom of the 10th (off poor Kim, who must have done something to really tick off Bob Brenly), I had some sort of mishmash of words. My phone was ringing — SEND THAT COLUMN — so I sent it without even reading it."

As Posnanski points out, you almost have to have two entirely different stories or columns ready in a close game, and then just choose whichever's appropriate for the final score. The problem with this is that you can't usually write anything too nuanced: you have to usually pick an angle for each and run with it, and that means that the other side will be diminished out of necessity, even if it's just as legitimate.

For example, in this case, you could have written a great game story focusing on the play of rookie quarterback Flacco, and it would have been absolutely appropriate if the Steelers had missed that OT field goal and the Ravens had gone on to win. You also could have written a story about Roethlisberger's experience getting the better of Flacco and the Ravens, which would not have been appropriate at all for the first half of the game but made sense in the end.

The problem is that the truth is really somewhere in the middle: both quarterbacks were good and bad at various times during the game, so it's tough to argue that a long field goal curving just inside the upright instead of bouncing off dramatically changes Roethlisberger into a hero and Flacco into a villain. Their performances really weren't all that different if you look at the whole night.

Unfortunately, it's awfully hard to write those middle-of-the road nuanced stories well, as you can't focus on an angle and you often come off as wishy-washy. I'm not saying we should get rid of angles: on the whole, they're a tremendous boon for sports journalism and they make articles much more interesting. My point is just that it's important to keep in mind how small the difference between victory and defeat can be, even if that isn't always reflected in the post-game coverage.

Overall, Queen's fans should probably be the happiest with their team's performance this past weekend. The Gaels knocked off the No. 2 team in the country by a considerable amount, and also proved they can win without a dominating performance from their offensive stars. Their fans should bear in mind that the score was somewhat deceiving, but Queen's has a nice easy match-up this weekend against the 0-5 York Lions.

Lions' fans can also take several positives from last weekend's game. Their team is now running like a well-oiled machine instead of the sputtering clunker we saw at the start of the campaign. Also, they appeared far more dominant on the gridiron than either the Gaels or the Steelers and controlled the entire game. Still, the quality of the opposition has to be considered and the utter incompetence of the Tiger-Cats has to dilute the thrill of victory somewhat. It will be interesting to see how they do tonight against a slightly better team, the Toronto Argonauts.

For Steelers' fans, things aren't nearly as rosy. Yes, they proved that they can come from behind, but they were not overly impressive for most of the game against a less-than-dominant Ravens' team. They also lost key running back Rashard Mendenhall to a season-ending injury [The Associated Press] Monday, and wound up having to go to Mewelde Moore, who started the season as the fourth-string back. Given how important the run game is to Steeler football, that doesn't bode well for the season. They also face the toughest test of any of these teams this week, as they'll have to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday. That game should tell us a lot about this Steelers team and their prospects this year.

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