Friday, September 30, 2011

Colts-Cowboys: Battle of the (Cartoon) Network Stars

Maybe the greatest appeal of football to men is this: It’s so linear.

You either have talent or you don’t. Either the talent performs or it doesn’t. If the talent doesn’t perform the team loses. If the team loses the coach gets fired. The switch is on or it’s off. It’s broken or it’s fixed. It’s brats or burgers.

What’s more, the product is standardized. There’s a recipe for throwing and general agreement on how to catch, how to run, and how to tackle. You don’t find a lot of knuckleballers in football. The Greenwich Mean Time of football is the 40-yard dash. You run against the clock, and the clock doesn’t keep a supply of graphite oil inside its belt.

Compare this to baseball, which is a women’s sport if ever there was one. Ichiro is arguably the greatest baseball talent of the modern age – Americans only saw the down side of his career, remember – but he is more idiosyncratic than a stop-motion David Byrne, he makes positive contact with the ball one-eighth of the time, and even if he makes positive contact there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. And it’s all discussed incessantly by everyone involved. I was watching the season finales on Wednesday, and for all the inherent drama I mostly felt like I had just wandered into the narthex of the local Lutheran church after a Sunday-school teacher’s meeting.

Really, baseball couldn’t be more feminine if it were lavender-scented.

The ultimate lesson here is that in football talent wins more often than not, even in these fanciful made-up games I’ve been documenting over the last several months. Cachet, that certain something behind a good 70 percent of the Yankees’ world championships, doesn’t really come to play in this sandbox.

All of which is a preface to saying this: the Cowboys lose.

Now, the Cowboys have nothing if not cachet. Of all the cartoon characters football fans have created to personify their team, the Cowboys’ character is the most pervasive: The 100 percent Amurrican as wild-west cowboy, rootin’ and tootin’ and shootin’ up the town, daring the law-abiding citizens to make him stop.

Oh, and he’s short. Like five-foot-two short. And his cowboy hat falls down over his ears to such an extent that all you see of him besides his hat is a pair of cowboy boots. It’s Jerry Jones in caricature as L’il Jerry, Amurrican hero, and one way or another L’il Jerry always wins. The Cowboys oeuvre is a topsy-turvy everything’s-bigger-in-Texas act for the new Texas, where they sell more Hyundais than F-150s, and it’s custom-made for all the brawn-over-brain galoots who have secretly rooted for Yosemite Sam to blow up Bugs Bunny just once.

If the Cowboys were a baseball team they’d be the Yankees; it’s been said more than once because it’s true. The Cowboys would hit you over the head with their stadium and pitch Herschel Walker in game one, Peyton Manning would lose a fly ball in the sun, the ‘Boys would bring in Deion Sanders to close, and it’d be all over before Pat Summerall realized they were playing baseball.

However, the Cowboys’ inherent Yankeeness returns to bite them in this stadium of the mind, where the numbers throw fastballs and reality runs the 40. Dallas’ success has been self-perpetuating, often in excess of the talent producing the results. The Cowboys have won 57.6 percent of their games, just a tick behind the Bears, yet their best quarterbacks have been Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach – Hall of Famers more renowned for managing talent than displaying outlandish skills. The ‘Boys running backs are unimpeachable – you gonna argue with TD and Emmitt, despite their iffy skills as pass-catchers? – but the wide receivers aren’t difference-makers and their offensive line toils in well-deserved obscurity. The D-line is stout and the linebackers are solid, but like a lot of good teams there’s work to be done in the defensive backfield. They’re just a team, in other words, like a lot of other teams. They don’t run out Hall of famers two-deep like the Bears or have a HOF-caliber QB as the fourth-stringer, like the 49ers and Rams. They put their pants on one leg at a time, and they set no records doing it.

When you assemble a team with consistent winning as a goal, this is what you get. When you assemble a team with less coherent goals, the best-case scenario is the Colts.

Make no mistake: the Colts have won 53 percent of their games over the last 59 years – nice, but hardly exemplary. However, the Colts have only been good half that time. The other half of the time they have been so bad that it’s a surprise they’ve only moved twice in their existence. The Frank Kush years were so execrable that the Colts could have been forgiven for pulling up stakes in week 12 and resettling in Shreveport or Toledo.

To be intensely bad half of your life and still be on the plus side of the glass must mean periods of sustained brilliance, and the Colts have delivered. The Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning teams have been among the greatest teams in football history, and if the all-time Colts steal heavily from them, what of it? Do you really want to trot out Steve Emtman in the interest of equal representation?

The bottom line for the Colts is that their quarterbacks are two of the best ever, they have four HOFers at running back – a scary combination of thunder (Eric Dickerson) and lightning (Lenny Moore and Marshall Faulk) and out-of-the-backfield pass-catching ability -- and three at wide receiver, they have one HOF tight end and maybe two, their O-line sports a current HOFer and a couple of gonna-bes, and their defense is predictably strong in the front line and less strong at linebacker and D-back. Plus, they have two HOF coaches already, with perhaps the best coach (Tony Dungy) in the wings.

That’s not much more than the Cowboys, but it is more. And in the inexorable, ultimately linear game of numbers that’s being played here, slightly more wins.

Here’s how. The Cowboys take the opening kickoff and pound the ball down the field, alternating Smith and Dorsett and setting up a 38-yard Rafael Septien field goal. The Colts go three-and-out, with a Peyton Manning sack, but then the Cowboys are bottled up and the Colts get untracked. Three straight Manning completions move the ball into field-goal territory, but three straight incompletions result in an Adam Viniateri miss from 46.

No matter. A Gino Marchetti strip results in a Dorsett fumble, Dwight Freeney recovers and the Colts get a short field to work with -- bad news for the ‘Boys, as Manning finds Mackey down the middle to give the Colts a 7-3 lead.

The ‘Boys keep pounding the ball, and use a rare bomb to Bob Hayes to set up an Emmitt Smith TD as the first quarter ends. The TD hardly dings the Colts’ momentum, though. Manning deftly works the short passing game to set up a patented fade pattern to Reggie Wayne, and the Colts regain the lead 14-10.

The rest of the first half follows a similar pattern. Dallas uses the running game to lengthen its possessions; the Colts use the passing game and a no-huddle offense to speed down the field. Both teams wring a field goal out of their possessions, giving the Colts a 17-13 lead at halftime.

After the Kilgore College Rangerettes high-step at halftime and L’il Jerry dances on the star at midfield comes the game’s biggest break: The Colts get the second-half kickoff.

Bang! Sixteen yards to Ray Berry. Bang! Eleven to Marvin Harrison. Bang! A nine-yard draw play to Edgerrin James. Bang! A 23-yard screen pass to Marshall Faulk. Before the ‘Boys can react, a no-huddle onslaught rocks Dallas onto its heels, and by the time their heads clear Dickerson has galloped into the end zone and the Colts have extended their lead to 24-13.

With the pressure on Dallas to quickly move the ball, the team folds up like a Quizno’s franchise. Ted Hendricks picks off Aikman and returns it to the Dallas 19. A nine-yard pass to Berry makes it 31-13. Roger Staubach relieves Aikman and delivers a 37-yard scoring strike to Michael Irvin, but the Cowboys are unable to turn a Bob Lilly strip of Peyton Manning into points, and Manning makes them pay by firing a 43-yard bullet to John Mackey.

With the outcome in hand, the Colts put the offense on Eric Dickerson’s shoulders, and he burns more than enough clock. A late Dorsett score can’t change the ultimate reality (in a made-up sort of way): 41-27 Colts.

Peyton Manning is masterful, completing 27 of 42 passes for 342 yards and four scores. Aikman and Staubach combine to go 16 for 29 for 274 yards and two scores. Smith and Dorsett combine for 143 rushing yards, but the Colts’ four backs lay down 132 – not exactly what Dallas had in mind.

So while the cartoon embodiment of the Cowboys sheds big pooling tears on his artificial turf, the cartoon embodiment of the Colts moves on to the next challenge.

And that cartoon embodiment of the Colts is … haven’t you heard? It’s Captain America.

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