Cowboys Mock the “Lock of the Century”
November 14, 2010 5 Comments
I don’t do sports commentary because I haven’t done sports in decades, having peaked in 6th grade. But watching the Dallas Cowboys (1-7) beat the New York Giants (6-2), convincingly (in New York), I cannot help but commentate.
Credit to the Cowboys for contributing high drama to the sport. And unpredictability. A sport is emotionally engaging to the extent it is unpredictable. If you know what will happen in a game, then it is less game than low-grade theater.
On Yahoo Sports “Lock of the Week,” two of the three commentators (an unusual doubling) — Jason Cole and Michael Silver — picked New York to beat Dallas easily. Indeed, both called the game “the lock of the century.” Pause to chuckle. All these guys have to do is pick three games that are easy calls. Two of them not only called New York to beat Dallas, but labeled it the easiest call for the next 90 years. Pause to chuckle.
See, one of the things that is so satisfying about being a Dallas Cowboys fan is the upending of so many careers in sports prediction. Unfortunately, this includes effusive predictions of greatness. The Cowboys are exhilarating and heart-breaking, but rarely in between.
They stayed ahead of the Giants the entire game. The Giants moment toward the end of the first half, when they were poised in the red zone to go ahead by a point, against a battered Cowboys secondary, got turned into its opposite when rookie corner Bryan McCann picked off an Eli Manning pass and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown. Team record. That was glorious. Then just as the Giants were driving in the 4th quarter and poised to execute the resolute comeback the Giants do supremely well — what they did against the Cowboys in the last heartbreaking loss — Alan Ball picked off an Eli Manning pass and sealed the Cowboys victory.
Inductive reasoning tells you that a team that’s, to date, 0-14 on 3rd down conversions, won’t convert a third down deep in their own territory against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. So Jon Kitna tosses to Felix Jones for a 71-yard touchdown in what the experts could have plausibly described as the defensive hold of the century. Pause to chuckle. And then came that 3rd and 22, the sort of play that sent Dallas fans into other rooms to dispatch long overlooked chores, like dusting grandma’s china, while the other team played a while. But oh my, that 1-15 stat became 2-16.
You just never know. That unpredictability of professional football is why commentators love recourse to mysticism. And their chief mystical mantra is “momentum.” The Giants won the last five games. The Cowboys didn’t. The Giants trailed the Cowboys in their last meeting, and pulled out a decisive win when the “momentum” shifted and the Giants scored five straight touchdowns. So the commentators — anybody else notice this? — kept seeing the “momentum” shifting to the Giants, remarkably, even after the Giants had to punt.
But “momentum” is only something you can truly see in hindsight, and it’s therefore a phantom concept. The Giants never managed anything even remotely approaching momentum. Yes, they managed more yards, more first downs, and more time of possession — all mystical indicia of victory. But (and we only know this in hindsight), it was never actually “momentum.”
And that’s because of momentum’s mystical stepchild — fortune. Football is a game of luck. A billion-dollar industry is devoted to obscuring the role of luck because there’s little of interest to say about a crap shoot. The Cowboys were remarkably lucky Sunday evening, in conspicuous contrast to their last several most unlucky outings.
If I sound fatalistic about football, read on. Football, like most of life, dances on a probability curve. Line up the competing forces on any given play, and you can theoretically map a probability curve for the result — but only a probability curve, not a scientific prediction. Luck determines the result, and makes the game exciting.
What is professional about professional football (and the reason why college football is more rollicking and, well, less professional) is the enormous investment in shaving the probability curve. Coaches analyze every aspect of multiple scenarios and determine what players need to do to prevent the ravage of fortune. Players internalize this understanding and shave the probability curve on the field.
Jon Kitna got his first NFL victory since 2007 because his offensive line gave him extra seconds — against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. And Kitna showed what he can do, throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. An offense is only as good as its offensive line. An extra two seconds shifts the probability curve enormously.
The Cowboys were professionally lucky Sunday evening. In a sport of plodding yards toward first downs and punts, penalties and turnovers are especially the province of (mis)fortune, and the Cowboys have been plagued. Sunday evening, they were the beneficiaries of the Giants’ misfortunes. Even the pass interference penalty against the Cowboys that led to a Giants touchdown seemed, in retrospect, merely a modesty reminder from Lady Fortune.
And modest, of course, is how we two-and-seven Cowboys fans feel. Modest and giddy.