Everyone thinks that athletes are audaciously bold when they guarantee or predict a victory by their team. I think the opposite is true. As an investment in self-made mythology, it’s a lower risk than diving into the office betting pool.
Whenever a player goes out on a limb and talks pre-game smack, they have immortality to gain and no more than a couple of days of ribbing to lose. For example, when Joe Namath guaranteed an upset victory in Super Bowl III, the media roundly mocked him, but when he backed up his talk with a 16-7 win over the Baltimore Colts, he became an instant legend. No one cares that he barely completed 50 percent of his passes, or threw 47 more interceptions than touchdowns, in an injury-plagued career. On the day it counted most, he was a prophet in shoulder pads.
Texas A&M fullback Javorskie Lane similarly guaranteed victory before his team’s 2007 game against Texas Tech. When the Aggies ended up losing the game 35-7, Lane responded with a so-shoot-me shrug, and Big 12 beat reporters quickly forgot his lousy Nostradamus act.
So when New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress recently predicted a 23-17 victory over the undefeated New England Patriots, he was doing the sensible thing. Sure, he offered the Pats some bulletin-board material, but what kind of professional athlete (particularly a member of one of the greatest teams in NFL history) needs a cocky bulletin-board quote to get themselves pumped up for the biggest game of the year? Burress, like Namath, talked the talk, and although he only caught two passes in Sunday’s 17-14 Giants victory, the second one delivered the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left in the game. We’ll be talking about Burress’s boast for years to come.
If not for a wildly improbable play in which Eli Manning twice avoided a sure sack and heaved a jump-ball pass 32 yards downfield — where David Tyree caught it and cradled it on his helmet as he fell to the turf — we’d be talking about the Patriots’ perfect season today. Manning has been justly celebrated for his pluck and athleticism in spinning free of a tackle on the play, but the pass itself was the epitome of the so-called “Bad Eli,” who used to force the ball into heavy coverage and kill drives with costly interceptions. Had the Patriots’ Rodney Harrison come away with that ball (and he easily could have), we’d be hearing once again about Manning’s reckless, throw-it-up-for-grabs mentality.
You can’t exactly call Tyree’s grab a fluke, because it took tremendous skill and concentration to bring that ball down. Among Super Bowl catches, only Lynn Swann’s tip-and-dive midfield acrobatic act against the Cowboys in 1976 comes close, and Swann’s catch, highlight-reel favorite though it was, did not result in any points. Tyree’s play came at the moment when things looked bleakest for the Giants, and instantly put them in position to win. But if it wasn’t a lucky catch, it surely required some good fortune, because holding the ball against your football helmet while your back collides with a hard surface does not generally yield the most positive results.
The bottom line is that the Patriots were outplayed from the opening kickoff, but it still took a freakish, desperation play to beat them. That may speak well for them, but it also underlines that the New England team we saw on Super Sunday was not the same juggernaut that sadistically ran up blowout scores on their opponents in September and October. Nearly three full games into the postseason, Randy Moss had a total of three receptions, none for touchdowns, a drastic drop from a regular season in which he set an NFL record with 23 touchdown catches. After mowing down every opponent they faced over their first eight games, over their last 11 games the Pats dodged serious bullets against the Colts, Eagles, Ravens, and Giants (in the regular-season finale), won an uninspired 20-10 game over the lowly Jets, and struggled in the playoffs with both Jacksonville and the walking-wounded San Diego Chargers before succumbing in the Super Bowl.
In a sense, the Patriots had reverted to their old form, winning with a mistake-free combination of disciplined passing, unspectacular but oppportunistic defense, and fundamental doggedness. When any of the elements fell out of place — as in the AFC Championship game when Tom Brady uncharacteristically threw three interceptions — they looked positively vincible.
In the hours after the Super Bowl, Eli Manning continued to express amazement that he’d led his team to the winning touchdown in the closing seconds. One senses that Eli will always see himself as Peyton’s baby brother, the protege who can never catch up to his mentor. You could sense that in the brief, post-game locker-room chat between the two brothers, with a boyish Eli basking in Peyton’s approval.
Eli may never have Peyton’s degree of accuracy or precision, but that’s at least partly because Peyton lives to analyze the game and break down defenses, and Eli doesn’t. His teammates call him Easy Eli because he doesn’t get too ruffled by anything, but he clearly didn’t enjoy serving as a New York media piñata for the last four years. Regardless of where his career goes from here, however, he can never again be reduced to a footnote in his brother’s biography. •