Saturday, January 30, 2016
Conflicted: Rooting For Carolina In The Superbowl.
Yes, yes, I know. Because of the Braves in 1995, we can't profess to have that same totality of anguish. Also, I am grateful to have been born somewhere that doesn't have that peculiar Midwestern Rust Belt thing where you take a perverse sort of pride in all that suffering and futility. We deal with the misery, we don't celebrate it. We do occasionally wish Cleveland would quit bitching about it, though, because we have a different and more insidious sports problem that we don't talk about much. Let's call it The Curse of the Divisional Younger Sibling. To wit:
The Braves came to Atlanta in 1966, and have only that aforementioned '95 World Series. The Marlins entered the NL East in 1993 and have since won two championships.
The Hawks migrated south from St. Louis in 1968. They made their first ever Eastern Conference Finals last season, and promptly got swept by the Cavs in disastrous fashion. The Miami Heat came into the Southeast Division in 1988 and have three banners in the rafters of the Triple-A.
This is the life of Atlanta sports fans: watching expansion franchises with a fraction of our history and heritage outstrip our teams' greatest accomplishments in exceedingly short order. And even within that staggeringly dreary context, the Falcons have somehow distinguished themselves as our most wretched team.
They played their first NFL season in 1966, the same season as the first Super Bowl. It took them 33 tortured, dog-ass years to finally make it to one of their own. Two notable occurrences in the interim:
1. The Bird-'Nique duel in game seven of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals. This is one of my clearest childhood memories, watching two absolute gods trade buckets on the hardwood, with my guy and my team coming up just short.
2. Here's how starved for any measure of success Atlanta sports fans were and mostly still are: The worst-to-first Braves lost a heartbreaking pitcher's duel because Bobby Cox stupidly wouldn't trust John Smoltz for one more inning in the final game of the 1991 World Series. When they came home, we threw them a parade. That's how grateful Atlanta was for any brief flash of hope; we feted the losing team like kings just for getting that far.
(You could make a plausible argument that Bird/Nique was the greatest NBA game ever played and that the '91 World Series was the best of all time. This is another hallmark of Atlanta sports: coming out on the wrong end of historically transcendent moments.)
Back to the Falcons and their lone Super Bowl appearance. We started the season 9-0 and finished 14-2, birthing the Dirty Bird and its accompanying ethos along the way. 'Nique, Deion and (later) Mike Vick notwithstanding, swagger is not something Atlanta is accustomed to with its sports teams, but the 1998 Falcons had it in spades. The whole city was turnt to a preposterous degree. When Morton Anderson put one through the uprights in overtime to win the NFC Championship game, it was difficult not to feel that our perpetually beleaguered football team was destined to bring the whole thing off.
You know what happened next. First there was the ill omen of Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson getting popped for solicitation by an undercover vice cop on the eve of the game. Everything that followed was of a piece with that ignominious beginning, and was pretty much what you'd expect if your team has Chris Chandler under center and the opposition has John Elway. Denver obliterated us wholesale. By the way, in the most Atlanta-sports-y moment ever, a power outage caused a swath of residents north of town to miss the halftime show and opening minutes of the third quarter. When this happened, the group of friends I was watching with pulled out our boxy late-90s cell phones and started calling until we found someone whose lights were still on. Then we piled into cars and hauled ass over there well in excess of the speed limit. In retrospect, we'd have been better off just sitting in the dark.
That game took place fourteen years ago, and still stands as the historical apex of Falcons football. In the meanwhile, expansion and divisional realignment have created the NFC South, and the fates of the four teams therein include Super Bowl wins for the Bucs (2002) and Saints (2009) and two Super Bowl appearances for the Panthers (2003 and, obviously, about a week from now.) The Falcons are the oldest extant team in the division; the Panthers are by far the youngest. Yet, having played football since only 1995, Carolina already has one more Super Bowl appearance than us. If they win next weekend, not only will they be another wee-baby expansion team throwing egg on Atlanta's face, they'll make the Falcons, who hold seniority by varying degrees over their brethren, the only ring-less team in the division. So, you know, I should be rooting with every fiber of my being for the Panthers to face plant on February 7th. I should be rooting for Peyton Manning to hang up his cleats after another championship, because he's been spectacular his entire career and probably should retire with more than one ring in a just world. I should want those things. And yet.
Cam Newton in 2015 is the most fun I've had watching NFL football in forever. There has never been a quarterback like him at this level, and what he's done this season has been breathtaking to witness. He's Steve Young on four cans of Red Bull with Michael Jackson-caliber entertainment value. The man literally broke his back a year ago and has hardly lost a game since. That's some Batman-level shit right there. He's slotting throws into microscopic windows when his receivers are even marginally open and running over everything in his path if they're covered. Denver's front seven is terrifying, and I still think he's going to render them mostly irrelevant next weekend. Watching how that plays out is going to be tremendous.
Also this: I want Cam to shut every "play the game the right way" rhetoric-spewing pundit right the hell up. I want every idiot who somehow finds his exuberance to be morally objectionable silenced by something like four TDs and 305 yards through the air with an ungodly completion percentage and 80 rushing yards and another score thrown in just because he can. There are a small handful of truly reprehensible humans playing professional football, and every other sport at every other level, and many more who are not playing sports at all, everywhere. Cam Newton is not one of those people. By all accounts, he's a really good dude who cares deeply about his community and the fans and also just so happens to very much enjoy what he does for a living and likes to let us know about it with some dabbing or a cheesy sideline team picture a few times a game. God bless him for it.
What I'm saying is I despise stuck-up haters infinitely more than I loathe the division-rival Panthers. If we were talking about the Saints, this would be a very different post. I love watching greatness reach its pinnacle more than I cherish whatever shred of the Falcons' dignity might be salvaged by a Carolina loss. And let's be real: there's not much left there to save.
Lastly, selfishly, stupidly, absurdly, totally nonsensically, a Carolina victory would be a sort of bleak, hazy validation for the Falcons and all their tortured history. Not only would it flip that painful script from January 31, 1999, the first time an old-man legendary Broncos QB rode of into the sunset after beating an NFC South team, but as the only ones who beat the Panthers this year, it would also transitively hand us a share of the Lombardi Trophy, sorta-kinda-not-really-but-still ... right? Atlanta sports: where the smallest, most elaborately fabricated moral victories are all you have to cling to sometimes.
Happy Super Bowl week, y'all. Go Panthers.