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Itís time for serious football


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November deepens. Skies turn gray. Frost covers the pumpkin field. Thanksgiving looms. One is at last ready for some serious football.

Back when there was an agreeable symmetry to the sporting seasons you were locked onto the gridiron stuff by Columbus Day. But that was before the football season began before Labor Day and lasted until the eve of Abe Lincolnís birthday and it was before teams had to survive a hundred games to win an NBA title or a Stanley Cup. And it was most especially before the dawning of the perpetual baseball season.

Nowadays if you drift seamlessly from the end of the World Series to the beginning of the Hot Stove Season you may not awaken from your baseball swoon until Soupey Sunday, which generally falls less than a fortnight before pitchers and catchers report to spring training. It can get disorienting.

To everything there is a season; or at least there is supposed to be. Although that necessity, as it applies to college football, can reasonably be questioned.

Understand that we are NOT talking here about the classical college game played by genuine student-athletes according to standards and guidelines that have been in place more than a century. That game yet thrives. Indeed it is the game that is still honorably waged almost exclusively in our own backyard and prevails with distinction at about 80 percent of Americaís colleges and universities where athletics remain a feature of academic life and not their raison díetre; not their primary justification for existence.

All of which remains the best kept secret in all of American sport. Such is the dominance of a relative handful of schools that command all the attention, hog all the TV time, devour all the profits, seize all the premium players, and break every rule in the book to insure that their ruthless domination continues at all costs. You might say thatís a rather weak generalization. But like most over-simplifications it is essentially true.

Itís no surprise therefore that the overwhelming majority of the body politic believes that when the subject is college football it is all about the Buckeyes, Trojans, Gators, Sooners, and bloody Crimson Tide. It is, alas, hard to deny. One finds it downright depressing to awaken to the subject belatedly and find all the usual suspects fully in charge again and lined up like so many barbarians at the gate primed to feast on all the booty. Itís the ultimate affirmation of the ancient wisdom that holds that the more things change the more they remain the same.

Which is why, all things considered, Iíll stick with the professionals. The National Football League is a grasping and mean-spirited business cartel offering an excessively violent product that runs like clockwork because itís totally controlled by the last of Americaís unregulated robber barons. This much I respect about the NFL. It is what it is and it pretends to be nothing more or less. The barons fully understand that America would have it no other way.

Grinding into the second half of the season there are some surprises. The leagueís remarkable parity has been shaken. There are more weak teams than usual; at least eight abject losers with another eight virtually out of playoff contention though itís only mid-November. Somethingís askew. The NFL invented sports parity.

New powers are rising with the long laughable Saints, once lovingly known as ďthe AinítsĒ, the last of the NFCís unbeatens. The Bengals, a rolling penal colony of outcasts and outlaws in recent seasons, are suddenly the talk of the AFC. But the usual suspects have gone nowhere. Very much in contention remain such hearty perennials as the Broncos, Steelers, Cowboys, Vikings, Giants, Chargers and, of course, the Patriots and Colts, those ancient adversaries billed widely as ďthe rivals of the decade.Ē

That is how NBC trumpeted their meeting. The network reveled in having an attractive Sunday night match-up for a change. The promoters likened it to a heavyweight championship bout, albeit presumably one from another era in that so few can identify any of the current boxing champs. But itís only November and rather early for such egregious hype. For most of the game the hyperbole seemed wasted. The game was spotty, even clumsy, and if there were dramatic moments it was hardly classic stuff. Overall, the Patriots dominated. Overall, they were the better team; certainly that was so for the first 55 minutes of play. Alas, they play 60.

With four of their top five defensive backs including their incumbent MVP, Rob Sanders, hors de combat, the Colts were ripe for the plucking. Early on Tom Brady and his reformed rascal of a sidekick, Randy Moss, found the slicing and dicing of the Indianapolis secondary to be grade school stuff and they had a merry time amassing a 17 point lead. It wasnít pretty. Why is it that Moss exulting in his own excellence makes you somehow uneasy?

Meanwhile, Peyton Manning -- the gameís once and future Galahad -- was having what may have been his worst performance ever in a big game and surely his weakest against the Patriots. ďQuailsĒ was the term NBC analyst Chris Collingsworth used to describe a couple of Peytonís errant lobs. In the parlance of pro football, suggesting a QB is tossing up ďquailsĒ is unquestionably an insult. And then came those last 4-5 minutes which are going to be the most discussed and dissected brief interlude of the entire season, or any recent season.

The burdens of genius are immense, as are its rewards. Bill Belichick has long enjoyed the latter. He must now endure the former. His decision to go for a first down on his own 28 on a fourth and two with little more than two minutes to go in a six point game was a moment for the football ages. You have only just begun to hear the give and take. It will be endless. It would not be so intense were it not for the fact Coach Bill has greatly enjoyed being esteemed as the smartest boy on the block. Now he must deal with the widely regarded fact that his spectacular miscue in the Coltsí game was so plainly, very, very dumb.

It was Rodney Harrison, the kamikaze of a safety who had been one of Coach Billís favorites until the brutality of the business obliged his retirement, who said it best. Now an NBC analyst, Harrison was obviously pained when he fielded the question. But he has never been one to duck the truth either on or off the field. And so he said, ďThis is the worst coaching decision I have ever seen Bill Belichick make.Ē

Along the way, the Coach has fashioned an enemyís list that might make Dick Nixon blush. Put it this way: There are more than a few folks out there in the football world this week who are finding Bill Belichickís deep discomfort vastly amusing. Maybe heíll benefit. Maybe heíll learn. Itís never too late, it is said.

You can further count on this much. The ramifications will ripple through the rest of this season. It will be fascinating to observe how the Patriots react, although anyone who leaps to a conclusion now is a fool. In the end, it could lift them. Or it could dash them. It is only November. We will know in about three months. The time for some serious football has arrived.

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