As penance for being angry at football yesterday, I will today discuss the beauty of the game. One game. I want to explore the idea that even when your team is doing shitty, there are other perfectly interesting games to watch.
Take the Texans and Bengals game this week (week 14). The Bengals are the most interesting team in the league if you were to play franchise mode in Madden. Andy Dalton to A.J. Green has the potential to grow into a fantastic bizarro Culpepper to Moss or Romo to Owens. Regardless of whether the Bengals make the playoffs this year or not, they will be a contender for years to come.
The Texans were playing for the team’s first ever playoff appearance. The Bengals are fighting to hold on to a Wild Card spot. But the Texans were down to their third string quarterback, fifth round pick T.J. Yates. Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart were both injured and unavailable. Are they worried about it? They won with the backup’s backup last week, and on their first play from the line of scrimmage they had him take a shot deep downfield to Jacoby Jones off of a fake handoff, looking to prey on the notion that a savvy coach ought to “protect” his inexperienced quarterback by emphasizing the running game to a ridiculous degree. Even though the pass was not caught, it portended throws to come. This wasn’t some scared rookie from over on yonder hill, he already had full Jedi Knight status in the Kubiak Offense. Already the network was broadcasting a shot of his family, assembled far from the hostile Cincinnati crowd in the farthest seats the stadium offered, high above the field.
The Kubiak Offense is designed player friendly, as fans of the old Broncos plug-and-play thousand yard running back might recall. Both Arian Foster and Ben Tate are capable at running back. If they didn’t have different numbers you’d never tell them apart. In a league where avoiding injury is more closely correlated with wining than any deliberate stratagem, the smartest deliberate stratagem is one that emphasizes fungibility. Seeing Tate, 44, break free for his uniform’s number of yards, one sees the value of loading the roster with players who possess whatever specific skillsets are necessary to thrive in this offensive system. The quarterback and running back positions are both now protected from the ravages of the injury bug in Houston.
Omen number two: the first drive of the game concluded in a 46-yard field goal that JUST made it through the uprights, as if to say the game was going to be close. Neil Rackers had only inches to spare.
Next drive: the Texans defense is “playing like their hair is on fire,” but Cinci drives and ties it up at three. The storyline next should have dictated that at the time the Texans scored their first touchdown, Yates had completed his next five passes, his only incomplete that first exploratory bomb. Except that it didn’t. Rey Maualuga wrested the ball from Tate on the five yard line, wresting for the Bengals the mantle of being the main character of this story as well. Already chaos was subtly setting in, and the Bengals pressed their advantage to a 16-3 lead at halftime. The announcer stupidly intoned that the Bengals ought to press harder by taking shots downfield on first down, or in other words, urging the winning team to adopt the strategy of the losing team. He could not have known then as I do now that the Texans were still going to win this game by the end, 20-19. Is their aggressive style that suggestive of superiority? Dalton handed off to Cedric Benson on first down and he was tackled for no gain. Dalton didn’t throw deep until a third and long when the defense was expecting as much. It too fell incomplete, already too little too late.
Yates threw his second quarter go-ahead touchdown behind schedule, in the third quarter with his team at that point losing by more than seven. Still, 7 points are 7 points no matter when you score them. Television viewers were shown that his family had been directed by security to move halfway down the empty upper deck to a spot more nearby other people. No rational explanation for the request was offered. The announcer declared that Foster and Tate “both bring something different to the table,” but did not elaborate any further. He was just spouting whatever poorly-conceived guess-theories come to his confused mind, with no rational attempt at correctness made.
In the fourth quarter Cincinnati lined up to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the eleven, and the crowd booed. No doubt Marvin Lewis saw it as the “safe” call to make. Did the crowd somehow know that nineteen points would not be enough? The Texans fielded the ensuing kickoff and were stuffed on a fourth and two. For a time Lewis was acquitted, the hometown fans teased with visions of victory. With six minutes left in the game the Bengals still led by nine. With three minutes left they had a first down on the fifty yard line and still led by six. Had they gained another six inches, fourth and one would have become first and ten and the Texans would have had no chance. But it didn’t and they did; the Bengals chose to punt.
With fifteen seconds remaining the Texans, still down by six, had thirty yards to go. Far earlier I noticed them antagonizing known hothead “Pac-Man” Jones, sometimes overtly sometimes covertly. I knew that he was destined to blow the penultimate play of the game, a pass interference penalty that allowed the Texans the chance to claim their victory. This foreknowledge begs the question: did he blow it because he was so easily distracted? Even so, his interference allowed the Texans just one chance with eight seconds to go, still held at the six. But that was the limit. That was the absolute closest the Bengals came to victory. Yates threw the final touchdown pass; his family cheered and cried and hugged for him, up in the bleachers in the sun. The Bengals lost the moment the extra point was good. The Texans led for two seconds. So insubstantial a time, after more than fifty-nine long minutes of effort. They were the only two seconds they needed.
The Texans are good enough with T.J. Yates to beat play-off caliber teams. When they get Andre Johnson back from injury they will be as good as anybody. But after Yates, the backups are Jake Delhomme and Jeff Garcia. Neither has been seen playing effectively for several years. Yates is their final, only hope. Kubiak can possibly coach his way to the Super Bowl, but can he get there with over-the-hill players he signed off the street? I marvel that he bothers to coach up his third string quarterback, and I know that with his type of personality anything is possible. I wonder how many head coaches never speak to anyone but their starter.
So I still love you NFL, but will you please do something about these announcers?
Edit later that evening: Since yesterday I’ve come to realize that Tebow and the Broncos are as natural as anything else in football. In fact, they may be the equal and opposite reaction to the 0-13 Indianapolis Colts!