Thursday, December 13, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: The Carousel by Dan O'Brien and Olav Bryant Smith

The Carousel: The NFL's Dark Carnival
Dan O'Brien and Olav Bryant Smith
PHOTO: John Martinez Pavliga

Original Published in the June 2012 Issue of Empirical

Joe Montana, Brett Favre, and now Peyton Manning.

For the majority of their careers, these three quarterbacks were synonymous with the cities they carried on their backs every Sunday–through sunny skies and inclement weather. The other thing these hall-of-famers–and all future hall-of-famers–have in common is finishing out bright, record-breaking careers anywhere other than where they had hung their helmets for a decade or more. Some of us who are old enough to remember Joe Montana donning a Kansas City Chiefs’ jersey wonder what the football gods were thinking. The same feeling came when Brett Favre departed from Green Bay–making way for a talented young quarterback–and jumped from the Jets to the Vikings as though he was climbing aboard porcelain horses, faded and greasy, at some mind-bending circus.

A fan imitates the praying posture that Tebow took whenever he reached the endzone. Now, Tebow has been traded to the Jets to compete with Mark Sanchez for playing time.
PHOTO: Alan Light
The house of mirrors that was the quarterback sweepstakes of 2012 was more than a key party gone awry. Teams took gambles, some with untested young quarterbacks–Matt Flynn based on one outstanding game–and others with the future of a coach-quarterback relationship that seemed cemented in stone (Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh). The landscape of the NFL is a microcosm blown into a kaleidoscope of shifting emotions and personalities that have grown identities all their own.

PHOTO: Matt Martin/Wikimedia Commons
Many of the colors of the current kaleidoscope began to reveal themselves with the decision by the Indianapolis Colts not to re-sign future hall-of-fame quarterback Peyton Manning. Faced with paying Manning (who has undergone four neck surgeries) a $28 million dollar bonus after a season where the team had gone 2-14 in his absence, the Colts opted to seize the opportunity created by the horrible record to draft their possible future franchise quarterback instead. With this decision, a number of quarterbacks who previously thought they were comfortable in their own situations were in the hot seat. The NFL quarterback carousel was turning.

PHOTO: Sharon Chapman
It must be understood that Manning is not just another quarterback. Quarterbacks are often measured in rings acquired, trophies hoisted above their heads, but in the case of Peyton Manning, we need to think critically about being a leader–a coach–on the field. What separates Manning from other quarterbacks–especially for readers who might not be familiar with him–is that athleticism and accuracy are not what make him a great quarterback, but instead his Zen-like philosophy on the field. His intelligence and adaptability is unique among active players at that position. The classic image of Manning is of his coming to the line, assessing the defense arrayed against him, spotting a weakness, and directing his offense on how to attack that vulnerability. He has been more often successful in this than not.

Manning's agent quickly set up visits with other interested teams, and the NFL world watched to see where Manning would go. When it was learned that the San Francisco 49er coaches went in secret to become players in the Manning contest, their presumed quarterback Alex Smith (who had just led his team to the NFC Championship for the first time in many years) was so frustrated by being in the shadow of a potential trade that he visited the Dolphins in pursuit of a new deal for himself. No quarterback, striving as they are to be the undisputed leaders of their respective teams, wants to feel expendable. With Manning on the move, and the carousel turning, the real truth of expendability for a number of these quarterbacks was revealed.

Now Peyton Manning, he of consistency and decade-long loyalty to the Indianapolis Colts, will be donning a Broncos' jersey heading into a season where Tim Tebow had been heralded as the face of the Denver franchise. When we consider how Peyton Manning felt, being shuffled about after a tumultuous season during which he had yet another neck surgery, how does knowing that the NFL is a game predicted on business impact quarterback loyalty to a team?

In light of the media frenzy that was Tebow-mania, this was a startling move. Elevated to starting quarterback mid-season, and leading a then 1-4 team through a first-round playoff win, Tebow earned a certain amount of qualified respect amongst players and coaches. Many fans, and especially Denver Bronco fans, were looking forward to seeing if the Tebow magic would continue next season. With the availability of the phenomenal Manning, however, the would-be hero (Tebow) was swept aside.
PHOTO: Chris Staley

Interestingly enough, it was the New York Jets and the vociferous Rex Ryan who bit and grabbed a player that, in many ways, is a good fit. The Jets have a strong defense–much like the Broncos who used a strong defensive presence to offset offensive failures through three quarters of football–and an offense that likes being physical, perhaps more physical than incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez is comfortable with. "I'm excited to e here. I'm excited to be a Jet," as espoused by a smiling Tebow amidst a press conference for an alleged back-up quarterback, speaks volumes about what the move to New York means for a team that has struggled to live up to the boisterous expectations of Rex Ryan. How excited is the Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, we wonder, after watching what happened to Kyle Orton (who lost his starting job to Tebow) in Denver? We find ourselves imagining Sanchez sitting in an expensive hotel suite and, upon hearing the news, tossing a double-pump caramel macchiato across his room while sending chairs and tables (overflowing with free merchandise) hurtling to the ground.

What about the press conference for Manning? We seem to recall some photos and stills with Manning holding up a jersey, but no quotes that are traded as comically as Tebow's "I'm excited to be here." In comparison, Manning's arrival in Denver was a quiet affair. But while most quarterbacks are defined by the system of offense they play in or the coaching staff that supports their every move, this is not the case for Manning, who shines regardless of coaching. And this should be most apparent in his first season with the Broncos if he is, in fact, healthy.

So was courting Manning worth the trouble? Denver certainly thinks so as they inked a ninety-six million dollar contract with the star, post neck surgeries. What about the Cardinals? Does Kevin Kolb feel the same sense of commitment and loyalty to a team that would slough him off like so much dead skin if Manning had cleared his throat in their direction? Certainly it would have improved a team with a deep threat like Larry Fitzgerald, but is the anxiety going into the season worth the risk? Does Alex Smith's scare and flirtation with the Dolphins present the possibility of on-field issues for the 49ers next season? Did watching Manning throw passes on the field of the team Matt Hasselbeck is supposed to be a leader of damage Hasselbeck's relationship with his team and coaches next season? Only time will tell.

In the end, though, we are interested in the question of whether or not Manning's flight from Indianapolis was predicated on his being a victim, pushed out as expendable by a greedy franchise, or if it was his desire to be the unquestioned captain of the ship combined with his demand for a risky $28 million dollar bonus that started this dark carnival and carousel turning? Where does the darkness lie? Or is there a bit of darkness to be shared by all sides–the yin and yang of football?

PHOTO: Noel Feans

There is a temptation to see the Colts as the bad guys and Manning as the good guy, but can we really make such a claim? Andrew Luck, who may be, technically and mechanically, a similar quarterback to Manning (without the valuable edge of maturity and experience)–might become the new face of a franchise that was tied so strongly to Manning’s emotional and psychological identity. If the case should be made that football is a metaphor for life and the journey of the self, can we not then imagine a strange but more ideal version of reality where an icon of the game, like Manning, would stick around and mentor a burgeoning quarterback like Luck? Should we not believe that love of the game transcends a bonus that was promised? 

Manning arrived in Denver as a well-paid mercenary. It is true that he is currently the expected savior–a knight in shining armor. But his introduction in Denver did not give us the sense that Manning was thrilled to be there. On the flipside, we have Tim Tebow, a young man who exudes love of the game in lieu of paychecks, smiling about being included on a team that would have him, even as a back-up, not charging for tickets to ride. 

We, in part, want to view this from a distance, to say that these players are paid (or overpaid) vast sums of money to participate in a sport they love and that they have played since being a small child running around with a bucket on their heads. But, as fans, many of us get caught up in the heroic fantasy of their roles in the NFL, and we want to see this heroism bound together with loyalty to a cause, a city, and a people. 

In the end, however, despite how many cameras we shove in their faces, or billboards we erect with their images, these heroes of the gridiron are just people who are, in most ways, like the rest of us. 

The worship of idols by adoring fans, and the belief they are on safe footing, creates egos built on statistics and money instead of dynasties and loyalty to those fans. Manning’s release from the Colts seems to reveal a lack of commitment and loyalty on both sides. Fame and ridiculously high pay scales turn men who love the game into men who talk about themselves in the third-person. On the other hand, Manning was clearly crushed when his demands were not met by the team he had personified for so long. 

Psychological vulnerability is muted, but not discarded, when one reaches the upper echelons of superstardom. While stars titillate and capture the emotions of a captive audience, they appear to be invulnerable and immortal gods experiencing the height of success and happiness. But when the NFL carousel begins to turn, we glimpse the momentary revelation of the humanity of carnival clowns–replete with painted smiling faces and traces of usually well-hidden tears.—Written by Empirical editors Dan O’Brien and Olav Bryant Smith.

PHOTO: Paula Beehner

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