Wednesday, March 21, 2012

La Guillotine

The New Orleans Saints aren't supposed to win football games.

In the story that is American professional football, the best the Saints should hope for is the occasional run into the first round of the playoffs, where they get to play the role of the foil to whichever prouder, richer franchise hit a rough patch on their way to a Wild Card berth. The Saints aren't supposed to win those games, and Saints fans should just be happy with double-digit win seasons that come along once or twice a decade.

That's how the story goes, anyway.

This team isn't even supposed to be here today. This franchise was supposed to have relocated to a more normal American city in a larger media market. Maybe then it would be OK for them to win more games, when there were more people to watch and buy league-approved licensed things and support the league's national television advertisers.

But the franchise stayed in New Orleans after the flood. The league knew that an America whose social culture is built upon unhealthy doses of guilt and shame would pick up on the abandonment theme, for a moment anyway, and the visuals of the move just wouldn't help the NFL brand. I guess the conventional wisdom was that the team would stick around, provide a few storybook moments as the city stumbled back to her soggy feet, and then bail on the place a few years later when wounds weren't as fresh. As long as the team continued the track record of mediocrity, maybe nobody would even much notice the move. While they were there, they could provide a place for a promising offensive coordinator in the Parcells coaching tree to get some head coaching experience before taking over a bigger program, and an injured quarterback might be able to secure a retirement with a few fading years of play.

That's the role for teams that aren't supposed to win games in the story of American football. And everything would have been just fine if the Saints had gone along with the plan of not winning football games.

But that's not how things played out.

From reopening the Superdome against Atlanta, to blowing out Dallas, to winning a home playoff game against Philly, a team that wasn't supposed to win was winning. Because that's too much upheaval of the preferred story for some to accept at face value, I remember hearing about how Michael Vick or the teams or the league were "letting" the Saints win. It was a kind of consolation prize in a down year for the conference so those poor people who want to rebuild their crazy city below sea level can have something to take their minds off their troubles for a few hours on Sunday. But order was restored in Chicago, and the next two seasons seemed to validate that the status quo had returned.

Though they might be a little better, the Saints still aren't supposed to win that many football games. But the official story can accept that this may have to do with good coaching. The Saints may win a few games until their coach has been hired by a prouder, richer program. Hell, if he could win a few games with a team that isn't supposed to win games, imagine what he could do with a team that is.

But he wouldn't go away. Neither would this team. Pretty soon they were winning more games than they had any right to, and the people of the backwater city in which the team was located were selling out every home game, had family watching from around the country, and were decking their entire rebuilding effort out in black and gold.

The Saints aren't supposed to win football games. And the people of New Orleans damn sure aren't supposed to make money selling black and gold items that included a fleur de lis or the words "Who Dat." The league came to remind the people of New Orleans that the NFL owned the colors black and gold, the fleur de lis, the term "Who Dat," and if New Orleanians weren't really respectful about stopping all this nonsense, they were coming after the paper bags, too. If there was any money supposed to be made off the sale of those items, that money should be coming to the league, where it is supposed to be. Stop screwing up the story line here.

But the people of New Orleans told the league to get the hell off their soggy lawns.

Around this time, people started figuring out that New Orleans wasn't cooperating with the official story anymore, and didn't mind writing their own. The Saints, who aren't supposed to win games, were back in the playoffs, hosting a conference Championship Game at home.

Order would be restored by football royalty: Bret Favre and the Minnesota. After putting the Saints back in their place, Favre would be able to retire with one last Super Bowl game, against another legendary quarterback, and would have an unblemished legend of his own that would span the ages.

But the Saints still refused to cooperate. Not only did they beat football royalty, they did it using the league's own overtime rules.

Now a quick word on the league's pre-Saints Super Bowl overtime rules: they were awful, everyone knew they were awful, and they were awful for years. It is like the league keeps Sudden-death overtime around despite all the objections because they are the league and you don't tell them what to do. Your team wins, hey! pat on the back. Your team loses, hey! them's the rules. Doesn't matter that the rules suck, we're the league and screw you. Sudden-death overtime was a part of the playoffs for decades until one thing happened that suddenly made them change the rules: the Saints, who aren't supposed to win football games, won their conference Championship Game in overtime. The league didn't even wait a few years to make the change, it was in the books a few weeks later.

I don't give much weight to conspiracy theories or persecution complexes, but that right there made me think twice about it.

Since then, the Saints, who aren't supposed to win football games, whose fans dare dress up for game in non-league approved costumes, who carded one of the franchise's biggest victories against one of the leagues most storied players using the league's own crappy rules, have now been to the playoffs 3 years in a row.

The story has no explanation for this, and the status quo is turned upside down. How have the Saints been winning games? How did this team win a championship? How did this team have players that broke decades-old records set by the legends of the game?

Oh, they're paying players to violently collide with other players over the course of a game. It doesn't matter that such is the very nature of the sport. It doesn't matter that there are other players and teams that have admitted this kind of thing goes on all the time. It doesn't matter that, if the results on the field are any indication, the plan was a complete and utter failure (unless participants are confused, and have secretly been taking shots at their own team's running backs). What matters are three things:

1. It is against the rules.
2. The Saints are the team that got caught.
3. This can serve the story by explaining why a team that isn't supposed to win has been winning.

That #3 is the real beast of it, and the buried lede. No one is talking about the other teams (prouder, richer programs all) where this was known to happen - the focus is on the years the Saints were winning when they weren't supposed to (or were being allowed to).

That's why I have trouble believing the penalties are appropriate. I won't defend actions I don't agree with. What I will do is say I don't believe the penalties would be as harsh for Dallas, Washington, New York, Minnesota, New England, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Denver. If any one of those teams were winning while doing something unsavory, not one person would question the legitimacy of their wins during that time. Because those are teams that are supposed to win football games, so no one would need an explanation. No one would need to make sure everyone knew the story.

But the Saints aren't supposed to win football games. They've been upsetting the apple cart, and they got caught doing something against the rules. That's why they're facing la guillotine.