A good day for America and a bad day for me
Congratulations to New Orleans! What a wonderful time it is for their community. They can have a parade this Tuesday and Mardi Gras the next, and on top of that they’re getting a new mayor! I’m halfway across the world, but judging from the news stories, this team meant everything to their town, and this season will bring them healing. As a Colts fan, I still want to dive to the bottom of the ocean, but I feel some peace about how the season ended, just as I did in 2007 when our loss helped set up the epic Pats-Giants Super Bowl.
I hear the Saints were deserving victors: they played very well; they had a great game plan, and they were well-coached. I can only give hearsay because the game kicked off at 8:25 AM Japan Time, coinciding with our morning staff meeting. I checked the box score online. (It says Drew Brees was 32 of 39 for 288 yards, 2 TDs, and no picks, which is incredible.) Before first period, we were winning 3-0 with 7:30 left in the 1st. Before second period, the Saints were trailing 10-3, and they were about to kick a field goal. Before third period, we’d just scored a touchdown to take a 17-13 lead. And after third period, we were on New Orleans’s 15, trailing 31-17. We lost the ball and the game over the course of passing period.
And then I had to survive the rest of the day. It was like getting into a car crash during lunch break, then coming back to work and pretending nothing happened. No one at school knew or cared about American football, so they totally didn’t commiserate. If my favorite baseball team had just lost, they would have shown compassion, but since it was football, even “we lost” sounded like gibberish.
A couple third-quarter kicking decisions indicated the difference between the two coaches to me. Sean Payton caught the Colts by surprise with an onside kick to start the third quarter. It wasn’t as risky as usual because early enough in the game that the Colts could never expect it, but it was just after halftime so he had time to prepare for it. Jim Caldwell called for a 51-yard field goal attempt by a 41-year old kicker who hadn’t made a kick from out there since 2006. By the book, kicking a field goal is the safe decision, but in that case the better choice was to go for it. It wasn’t that Payton was risky and Caldwell was cautious; rather, Payton was aggressive and Caldwell was conventional. According to some articles I’ve read, the Colts’ attack even became predictable over the course of the game, and they abandoned the running game though it was working.
I guess that we as Colts fans finally know what sort of leader we have. He’s really good at training the team; he inspires them to get better each and every day. I heard he silently counts how many penalties his players commit in practice, then tells them afterward so they’ll be more aware the next time. So the Colts have continued to be excellent. But football is a competitive sport, with a team on the other sideline, and Sean Payton was a better competitor, someone adept in attacking the weaknesses of the opponent and making decisions in-game.
Which brings me to our quarterback. An amazing thing about professional sports is that millions of people are watching someone do his job in real time: in nothing else is success or failure decided so quickly, objectively, and publicly. We in Indianapolis identify especially with the Colts and their players. We want to be as professional and prepared as them. So when they fail, we can step out of that character right afterward, but deep down it’s like we failed too. The leader and symbol of the Colts is Peyton Manning. And right now, I feel like I’m as flawed as he is, and every writer who criticizes him this week is also attacking me.
This was the worst possible way the season could have ended for him. I really hate it when writers belittle a professional athlete for being “not clutch enough.” To make it in a highly competitive sport, like the NFL or swimming, you have to have more discipline and mental strength than almost any writer or fan could dream of having. By all accounts, Manning prepares for games and hones his talents more than anyone in the league.
That said, even the best of them can give their all in both preparation and execution and still fail. I’m nowhere near the best of them, and I fail too. Last week I learned that I failed my Japanese test in December. Today, after the game happened to me, we had an English class in front of the other teachers in the junior high school. I wasn’t responsible for planning the class – I saw the plan beforehand, assisted in-class, and contributed a map (we were teaching directions). But in the meeting afterward, we got lacerated, and so did the map. I realized how much more active I could have been in the planning, and how much more I should have thought about this class beforehand, but I’d mostly left it to the other guy. And I felt terrible. One of the teachers even asked, on top of his criticism of the class itself, if I could stop singing so loud when we sing in English because my big American voice echoes into other classrooms. So, that was directly my fault.
After things like that, you want to go back to the scene and redo it right away, in a sharper frame of mind. But I’ll never have another research class, and my next test is in July. Manning won’t even get to play more games until September; his Super Bowl redemption would come a year from today at the earliest.
There’s nothing Manning can do about his character. He’s not Joe Montana, but as far as I know he’s not spiritually broken in some way. He’s won only one title in ten years, but if you’re a top-five team (rather than a clearly dominant one) year after year, a lot of years are going to break badly for you, and you’ll have more high-profile failures than you would if you were only favorites once in a while, like Pittsburgh. So I suspect Manning will react to his failure the same way as I’m reacting to my test: he’ll shut everything out and go back to work. And come to think of it, if I fail Japanese tests because I don’t prepare enough, why am I still typing this?