Thursday, January 27, 2011

See, I Was Mostly Kidding About That SI Cover Jinx Thing

But maybe I should have thought about it a bit more closely. See, I don't really believe in curses. I think they're silly. Unless you happen to referring to the Chicago Cubs. But given that Sports Illustrated's cover jinx strikes as frequently as it does, a statistically significant percentage of the time, perhaps I should be thinking differently. I had often assumed there were inherent biases in the original study, such as the fact that teams featured on the cover are often more likely than not to be playing a major elimination game immediately afterward which they only hold a 50/50 shot at winning anyway. And when all else fails, I would always rely on the fact that after knocking off Green Bay in a thrilling 2007 NFC Championship Game at bitter Lambeau Field, Eli Manning was thrust onto the cover inviting certain doom.

But we all know what happened then.

So of course, the Giants' Super Bowl XLII victory was irrefutable proof that the cover jinx was just a silly joke to bring up from time to time and not something to fear perpetually. But this year may have changed my tune. After seeing both the Jets and Bears turn in performances that left them shy of reaching the big game, I started to wonder if this year's covers, and last year's covers, might be indicative of a trend. And sure enough, if you really want to search back through the seasons there are even more examples of the eventual Championship Sunday losers getting tossed on their hides one game short of the Super Bowl.

After years of only bringing up the SI Cover Curse for purposes of mock humor, perhaps it's finally time to start taking it seriously, or at least to campaign for the Giants, Mets, Devils, Knicks or Northwestern to never ever appear on the cover again unless it is immediately following a championship victory. Fortunately, I know I'll never have to worry about that happening with Southampton FC (who happens to be facing off with Manchester United in the FA Cup this weekend) or the Geelong Cats. Probably not the Devils or Northwestern either, who have all of three cover appearances between them.

That said, with the cover now laying both individuals, teams and even whole leagues in its wake, it could finally be time to give it real credence.

Unless, of course, you're rational.

I never claimed to be that, but there are probably several decent reasons as to why the Bears and Jets lost this past weekend beyond some slips of paper. After all, the Bears were never quite as good as their record this season while the Packers, who finished a respectable 10-6, were generally thought to be not nearly as bad as theirs. It didn't take a football savant to realize that Green Bay was playing better than, well, anyone in the League heading into the NFC Championship Game, and the fact that this season the Pack were simply better than the Bears is likely what accounted for their victory Sunday.

One could just as easily have made the same arguments for the Steelers topping the Jets right afterward, but that game is a horse of a different color. For one, the teams were far more evenly matched. For another, the Jets, who cordially spotted Pittsburgh a 24-0 lead in the first half, very nearly capped a comeback for the ages and only failed to do so by shooting themselves in the foot. That is not to say the Steelers didn't play well enough to win the game -- clearly they did -- but New York, which displayed frightful ineptitude for the first 29 minutes or so played an absolutely dominant second half on both sides of the ball.

However, this game wound up resting on a very delicate precipice in the middle of the fourth quarter which saw New York make two very crucial errors. The Jets were at the tail end of what had the makings of being an absolutely legendary postseason drive. After pulling it to within 24-10, New York embarked on a massive 80-yard, 17-play drive that brought them down to the Pittsburgh goal line with four chances to punch it in and make it a one-score game with plenty of time remaining. I am of the opinion that had New York scored here and had seven minutes to work with against a Pittsburgh offense that had shown no ability to move the ball in the second half on a revitalized Jets defense and a Pittsburgh defense that had been unable to slow anything down over the previous quarter an a half, that the Jets would be in Super Bowl XLV.

But there were two crucial mistakes. One can be shouldered squarely by Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who instead of simply ramming the ball in four times -- you're bound to get one whole yard if you just keep pushing -- decided to get too cute. Now Schottenheimer can't simply be blamed without being praised. Had it not been for a gutsy deep throw on one of the Jets' early possessions in the second half, New York wouldn't have been in a position to swing the momentum so dramatically. But by calling complex, long-developing plays near the goal line instead of just ramming his running backs at the box, Schottenheimer dropped the ball.

However, the biggest mistake may have been on third down, when Schottenheimer called a quick inside slant that was immediately knocked down and nearly intercepted by Lamarr Woodley. Why that play was called to begin with I won't quite understand, but this truly is an error by quarterback Mark Sanchez, who needs to recognize that Woodley is in the likely path of the pass he needs to throw and immediately audible out of that play -- something he failed to do. The Jets not scoring here caused a fatal turning point, if for no other reason than that they were unable to get the ball back after finally making it a one-score game because there simply wasn't enough time on the clock. And that was the end of New York's second straight postseason heartbreak. Somehow, this wound up being just the second-most offensive thing to happen to New Yorkers this weekend.

That said -- and what I'm about to say is entirely facetious because of course the Jets would rather have won the game -- perhaps it's better that the Jets wound up not winning because the NFL made the absolutely bizarre decision this year to take the George S. Halas Trophy given to the NFC Champion and the Lamar Hunt Trophy, given to the AFC Champion, and turn what were two of the classiest, stateliest trophies in sports and turn them into a bizarre minimalist art exhibit.

Really. It begs the question of, uh, why was this at all necessary?

Fortunately for us, we've got the always reliable Uniwatch to break down the specific changes for us, and less importantly, how he feels about them. Still, this just wreaks of rebranding run amok. Not only was the change unnecessary and were the old trophies, at least in my opinion, incredibly stately, but the new ones kind of look chintzy, cheap and, well lame. Just take one look at how the dinky miniature of Jodie Foster's space travel machine in Contact looks in Steelers owner Art Rooney's hand and compare it with the expressions on Santanio Holmes and Mike Tomlin's faces from two years ago when the won the AFC and were rewarded with a trophy that had some heft to it. It's nearly impossible to hold the damn thing without looking like you're afraid of breaking it. I'm highly skeptical that they would, but here's hoping the NFL realizes the error of its ways.

If not, well, that'll just be par for the course. There are bigger concerns like, say, having to move home games because of a U2 concert. Who knows how the Marlins would respond to, you know, having people in the stands. Could be awkward.

In any event, what's done is done. Now we just have that eternal two-week wait for Super Bowl XLV to kick off between the Steelers and Packers before that even longer winter of our discontent -- which actually happens in summer -- until the next football season. I'll have a whole preview written for next week -- or at least a prediction. I'm not going to explicitly say who I'm picking now, but let's just say there are some outside forces that could give you some idea of where I'm going.

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