Sports, like life, can be very dramatic. It's just that it sometimes doesn't tell the story you want it to.
The Super Bowl yesterday was very dramatic, in a Keystone Cops kind of way. Although penalties every which way and bumbles, fumbles, and interceptions charted the course of the game, it was very entertaining most of the way through and genuinely dramatic in the last five minutes. Trouble was, the narrative I really liked was the one that ended with 2:37 to go.
The Cardinals were a scruffy, ragtag crew that had never been to the big show before, with a fifth as many post-season appearances as their rival. Lots of people felt they didn't even belong in the playoffs, when several teams with better records weren't. But they put together a scrappy, never-say-die playoff run. They got stellar performances throughout the postseason by many different no-name players in turn (Darnell Dockett this time), who stepped up when needed. They have a breakout receiving star (Larry Fitzgerald set NFL records for catches, yards, and touchdowns in a postseason) who was shut down in the first half by a defense that mostly kept him double-teamed, but who came through for his team with spectacular play when it counted. And they got a high-rated performance from an old journeyman quarterback who, even more than most, has truly earned his way into the Hall of Fame. Great stuff. Great story. Larry Fitzgerald's wide-eyed final touchdown sprint should have been the stuff of lore and legend. If the game had ended at the two-minute mark.
It's just that the game wasn't over by then.
The Steelers earned their win. The Cardinal defense had manned up all day despite being basically outmatched, but it couldn't hold. Warner played better than Roethlisberger, statistically, but Roethlisberger came through time after time when he had to. Santonio Holmes's final touchdown was a spectacular catch, even if he had just let the ball go right through his hands the play before on the other side. Steeler fans, go wild. You've got good reason.
Nice for them. Nice for their fans. Nice job. So why do I feel like "my" team lost? It's not like I follow either of those teams. It's not like I automatically root for the NFC (with the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, I'd root for any AFC team that exists).
And we really can't complain about any Super Bowl that's as entertaining as this one was. I think I stopped being such a big football fan when I finally realized—long after the evidence was in—that only about one out of every five NFL games is really any good. Fifteen hours of TV for three good ones flunks the time-efficiency test. The ratio has been even worse with Super Bowls, which were so bad so consistently for so long that it became a standard joke.
And then there's the fact that by temperament, I'm definitely a root-for-the-underdog type. I don't like dynasties. I can't be a real baseball fan because of the simple fact that the Yankees win one out of every four World Series by fiat; the way I see it, they buy their way to a certain percentage of titles. It's as good as a fix to me. I hated the whole "America's Team" mantra around the Cowboys. I'd much rather a lesser team win its first title than a dynasty win its sixth—especially since a lot of the same guys were around for number five.
Of course, that's not an argument. The best team should win, never mind what the win means. There's no such thing as "deserving" a win beyond putting the most points on the board before time runs out. The upstarts certainly don't deserve to win just because a comeback makes a better story.
It's not even that I don't like the Steelers. How could I? I grew up in the '70s. Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris—I can still name half the guys on those teams.
But even though it was a great game, it still wasn't a great win. I'll remember James Harrison's record-setting interception return, but also his shameful mugging of an opponent late in the game, which ought to get him suspended. (Somebody should take that man's steroids away from him before he hurts somebody.) I'll remember the touchback, of course, but also that it was the result of yet another penalty. The Steeler's defense, statistically top-rated, was nowhere near as good as the defense last year's Giants played in the final few months. (Brett Favre couldn't do a thing against those guys. Neither could Tom Brady. Kurt Warner wouldn't have either, I don't think.) More than anything, I'll remember Super Bowl XLIII as being a game of rules, infractions of rules, inches, and seconds—and a lesson that stories, in sports as in life, don't always end neatly tied up with a ribbon and a bow.