In Defense of (Sports) Infidelity

April 14, 2010

When the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl over the heavily-favored* Colts two months ago, I was overjoyed. It wasn’t because I bet on them (I didn’t) or because I picked them and I enjoy being right (although I did and I do). It was because I became a Saints fan in 2009. While my beloved Buffalo Bills struggled through yet another dismal season, I began paying less attention to the Bills and putting more of my rooting interest in the Saints. This rubbed some of my friends and family members in Western New York the wrong way.

Most of the snide comments I received about being a bandwagon jumper or a fair-weather fan were good-natured, but I suspect the most hardcore Bills fans in my inner circle felt a genuine sense of betrayal. People view the long-suffering fan with a strange combination of respect, admiration, and pity. This is how we feel about people who root for the Chicago Cubs, the Detroit Lions, the LA Clippers, the Cleveland Browns, the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox… and the Buffalo Bills. Conversely, the fair-weather fan is a maligned character, seen as spineless and fickle, unwilling to take the bad with the good, always looking to get behind the flavor of the month, a sports philanderer.

Fans are expected to be loyal. If you don’t stick with your team through the rough patches, you’re not considered a real fan. And when I began openly and vocally supporting the Saints, I invited the animosity I received. I said I was renouncing the Bills for good, fed up with a decade of mediocrity, poor management, and a suspicion that the team wasn’t even trying to win anymore, that owner Ralph Wilson was more concerned with selling tickets than with putting a decent team on the field. This was partially true. I am frustrated with how the team has been handled for the past several years, and I do think that Wilson has become more interested in profit margins than playoff berths.

But I love them. I can’t help it. What I said about turning my back on the team was just hyperbole. I could never root against the Bills or pretend I don’t care if they win or lose. Any time a Bills game was on this season, I rooted for them. And on the rare occasions that they had a big win (such as the exciting fourth quarter comeback against the Dolphins) I jumped around and shouted just like I always had. But I decided I wasn’t going to invest in them emotionally this season. In the past, the way the team performed had profoundly affected my mood. And, for the past ten years or so, that mostly meant the team made me depressed. They crushed my hopes over and over again. Going into 2009, I knew the Bills had no chance of making the playoffs or even finishing with a winning record. On paper, they looked like one of the worst teams in the league. I expected them to win 3 games (so, really, they were twice as good as I thought they would be). I figured, why make myself miserable? I decided to find a different team to root for, a team that actually had a chance, a team that would at least be competitive.

I settled on the Saints for a variety of reasons. First, I’m a huge Reggie Bush fan. Even though I admit he’s been a bit of a disappointment in the pros – I wouldn’t call him a bust, but he certainly hasn’t been the superstar we expected – I love watching the guy play. I still consider him the most talented athlete I have ever seen in person (and I’ve seen some good ones: Kobe Bryant, Roger Clemens, Alexander Ovechkin, Tom Brady, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, to name a few). Perhaps more importantly, the Saints are a supremely entertaining team to watch. They have a great passing game, a solid running game, and a defense that gives up a lot of points but also makes some huge plays. Plus I predicted they would be an elite team, and I wanted them to prove me right.

The Saints rewarded my newfound affection. I don’t just mean the championship. I mean the entertainment value of watching and rooting for the team. As the season went on, I became a bigger and bigger fan because they were so fun to watch. By the time the playoffs rolled around, I was hooked. I said before the NFC championship game and before the Super Bowl that I would remain a hardcore Saints fan even if the team lost.

Anyway, this wasn’t supposed to be about defending my decision to root for the Saints. At least, not entirely. What I really want to talk about is why we root for certain teams. And, once we become fans, are we obligated to continue rooting for that team for the rest of our natural lives? Is there a moral or ethical necessity to root for the home team? And, aside from geographic proximity, what are valid (or invalid) reasons to become a fan of a team?

Not many people would argue against the idea of rooting for the home team. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But I can name one guy who is opposed to it: Chuck Klosterman. Sadly, I can’t quote him directly on the subject. I know he addressed it in one of his books, but I can’t remember which one, and an index search of terms such as “home team,” “sports,” and “fan” did not yield positive results.

(Aside: During my fruitless search for this passage, I happened to reread CK’s essay about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the eighties, and I found this gem: “This is why men need to become obsessed with things: It’s an extroverted way to pursue solipsism. We are able to study something that defines who we are; therefore, we are able to study ourselves. Do you know people who insist they like ‘all kinds of music’? That actually means they like no kinds of music. And do you know guys who didn’t care who won when the Celtics played the Lakers? That means they never really cared about anything.” If you’re not reading Klosterman, you should be.)

As I remember it, Chuck’s argument is that rooting for the home team just because they’re the home team makes no sense. Why should you feel obligated to identify with a team, let alone feel emotionally invested in its performance, solely because it is somewhat nearby? It would be easy to dismiss this argument for the simple reason that Chuck grew up in rural North Dakota; there was no home team. He could not be expected to understand the importance of the Packers in Wisconsin, the Bills in Buffalo, the Maple Leafs in Toronto, etc. But his argument shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly, because he (kind of) has a point.

There is no logical reason to support the home team, they’re just the easiest to support. They’re on TV frequently, they get all the coverage in the local paper, you can go to the games if you’ve got the money to spend, and chances are good that a substantial portion of your friends and family also root for the team. So the home team is the default option. Still, simple convenience doesn’t explain why many fans become so passionate about their local squads.

There is surely an element of self-identification. Partly, it’s the community aspect. In order to root against the home team, you need to actively go against the tribe. It is, in a small way, an act of rebellion, a rejection of the community’s values. This is why I have always distrusted Jets and Dolphins fans. To root for one of those teams in Western New York is to say to your peers, “I am not one of you, and there is a good chance I don’t like you.”

Yet it goes further than that. The personality, style, and history of a team become intertwined with the qualities of the city where they play. The qualities of the team and the qualities of the city are depicted and perceived as being connected, if not identical. This is a fallacy, even when it appears to be true.

When I think of teams that appear to reflect the values of the cities they call home, I immediately think of the Pittsburgh Steelers. For as long as I can remember, the Steelers have been associated with great defense and running the ball. Back in the seventies, there was the Steel Curtain defense, Franco Harris, and everything else. Then there was the Jerome Bettis era, and for most of the 1990s it seemed like Pittsburgh always had the best linebackers in the league. These days, they still have a strong defense, anchored by safety Troy Polamalu, arguably the best defensive player in the NFL (though you could make a case for Darrelle Revis of the Jets). Anyway, these qualities seem to be a reflection of (or perhaps an influence on) Pittsburgh itself. The Steelers’ style of play is often referred to as “smash mouth” or “hard-nosed.” And this is a good fit for Pittsburgh, a blue-collar, rust belt city.

But, assuming the Steelers continued to win games, would the people of Pittsburgh love the Steelers any less if their style of play was completely different? What if they decided to go to a pass-first offense, focusing their game plan on the talents of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receivers such as Santonio Holmes? And what if they lost some of their defensive stars and started giving up a lot more points? What if, in other words, they became the AFC’s version of the New Orleans Saints? If they had as much success as the Saints had in 2009, I’m sure the citizens of Pittsburgh would wave their terrible towels all the same, even if the team wasn’t as hard-nosed as it used to be.

To give another example, Buffalo and Pittsburgh (the cities, not the teams) have a lot in common. Buffalo is another blue-collar, rust belt city. You would expect that Bills fans, like Steelers fans, would have an appreciation for hard work, physical play, defense, running the ball, etc. This is true, to a certain extent, but only because any football fan would value those qualities. They make for a good team, after all. The difference is that the glory days of the Bills, the early nineties, were built on an up-tempo, pass-first, no-huddle offense that lit up the scoreboard and put a lot of pressure on its own defense. Consequently, the defense was not great. Despite stars like Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley, the Bills allowed a lot of points. The burden of winning games fell squarely on the shoulders of Jim Kelly and the K-Gun offense.

You could also make an argument that those Bills teams did not epitomize a great work ethic. Sure, they worked hard. Any team that wins that many games has to work hard. I don’t want to slander those teams, because I loved them dearly. But head coach Marv Levy was a laidback guy, a guy who didn’t believe in pushing his players too hard. Training camp was often referred to as “Club Marv,” and Bruce Smith always found a reason to avoid playing in preseason games.

There are persistent stories that those teams did a lot of partying on Super Bowl weekend. I have no way of verifying those sordid tales, but do I think it’s possible that late nights and hard drinking are partially responsible for the Bills playing poorly in four consecutive Super Bowls? Yes, I think it could have been a factor. (Note: The Bills played relatively well in Super Bowl XXV, when they notoriously lost the game by missing a last-second field goal attempt. But they were clearly a better team than the Giants that season, were heavily favored, and probably should have won the game handily. But Giants coach Bill Parcells outcoached Levy, and the Bills’ players might have had a bit too much fun on Saturday night.)

So here’s my point: When you really look at the team, it’s difficult to argue that the great Bills teams of the early nineties reflected the personality of Buffalo as a whole. But we found ways to identify with the team, anyway. We said the Bills were tough, especially Kelly. He would take devastating hits and stay in the game. He threw interceptions and never let it faze him. He might throw three picks in the first half but come back with four touchdowns in the second. The Bills always seemed resilient: the team would never quit. This was best expressed by The Comeback, the playoff game against the Houston Oilers when the Bills overcame a 35-3 third quarter deficit to win the game 41-38 in overtime.

I’m not denying the Bills possessed these qualities. Jim Kelly was a tough son of a bitch. And they never quit, even when logic dictated they should. But any great team would have those qualities, at least some of the time. In order to win, you need to be tough, and you need to have a burning desire to defy the odds even when it looks like you should lose. So, in order to identify with the home team, we fixate on qualities we (as people) appear to have in common with the players (as a team). It works the same way in all aspects of society: the mythology adapts to the reality.

So, if we accept that there are no compelling reasons beyond convenience and following the crowd to support the home team, what standards should we apply when looking for another team to follow? I seem to remember Klosterman suggesting (and, again, I’m working purely from memory here) that you should become a fan of a team if you admire the way they play the game, or if they embody qualities that you personally possess or consider valuable, or if the individual players and coaches are “good character” guys.

At first, this argument makes sense. But there are a couple of big problems. First, it means that you will inevitably be choosing to root for a team that wins a lot of games. Let’s be honest, no one was looking at the 2009 St. Louis Rams and admiring the way they played the game. And you don’t want to personally identify with a bad team, because that would reflect poorly on you. And, even if you were basing your allegiance purely on the good character factor, there won’t be many bad teams that qualify. Why? Because bad teams are pissed off teams. Bad teams bicker. Players on bad teams get into trouble. I’m not saying this is true all the time, but generally speaking, it’s much easier to display good character when things are going well.

Anyway, you’re going to wind up picking a good team to root for. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. After all, that’s what I did with the Saints. But here’s the other problem: What do you do when your chosen team no longer possesses the qualities that made you love them in the first place? A team that used to play with effortless grace and talent could become woefully incompetent. The character of a team changes over time. (With the notable exception of the Oakland Raiders. It doesn’t matter who’s coaching them, or whether they’re good or bad; the team always seems to have the same personality. Of course, when your fans dress like orcs on PCP, that’s going to influence the way you’re perceived.) So now you have an existential dilemma: You wake up one day and realize your chosen team isn’t the team you fell in love with anymore. What do you do? Do you stick with them out of blind loyalty, or habit, or hope that the situation will improve? Or do you go shopping for a new team, a team that reflects the qualities you prize? This must be what it feels like to contemplate divorce.

It’s easier when you’re a kid. Kids can root for a team for any damn reason they want. Because they like the uniforms, or the mascot, or because the team is really good in a video game. For a long time, the Philadelphia Eagles were my second-favorite NFL team, primarily because Randall Cunningham was un-fucking-stoppable in Tecmo Super Bowl. He was the quarterback version of Bo Jackson.

Speaking of the Eagles, that’s something topical. As I write this section of the essay, it’s the day after the Eagles traded quarterback Donovan McNabb to their NFC East rivals, the Washington Redskins, getting robbed blind in the process (the Redskins gave up only two draft picks, neither of which was a first-round selection). I’ve been a McNabb fan since he came into the league. After all, I’m from upstate New York and he played his college ball at Syracuse, and then got drafted by the Eagles, a team I already liked.

When I saw the Eagles had traded McNabb to the Redskins (a team I’ve always disliked) I was faced with a choice – where are my loyalties? I’m certainly not going to become a Redskins fan. But I do think the Eagles screwed Donovan over, at least a little, and I sympathize with him more than with the Eagles’ management. So I would have to say that I like the Eagles a little less (and the Redskins a little more) than I did two days ago. I feel pretty much the same about Donovan McNabb. I hope he has success. And I hope he blows out the Eagles twice next season.

Maybe that’s the best way to pick sides; which players do you like more? In the age of free agency and salary caps, many players change teams multiple times throughout their careers. This is how I became a Lakers fan. First, I was a Shaquille O’Neal fan.

I was crazy about Shaq. I don’t know why. As a chubby, 8-year-old white kid, I wasn’t even that interested in basketball. But I saw Shaq destroy a backboard during his rookie season with the Magic, and I was a fan for life. I had Shaq merchandise. I had a miniature Shaq backboard and matching blue and white basketball in my bedroom. I owned Shaq’s debut rap album (Shaq Diesel!) on cassette. (By the way, there is nothing that can top Shaq-rap on the unintentional comedy scale. I really need to see if I can find that tape.)

So I rooted for the Orlando Magic for a few years. And then Shaq went to LA, and I still wanted to root for him. So, presto change-o, I was a Lakers fan. And then I became a fan of Kobe, and Phil Jackson, and Robert Horry, and (sort of) Derek Fisher. So much so that when Shaq went to Miami, I still hoped that he did well, and I was happy to see him win another title with D-Wade, but the Lakers were my team. Also, I sensed that Shaq was about to become a mercenary big man, and I didn’t like the idea of changing teams every year or two. It would get confusing. I don’t want to be rooting for the Atlanta Hawks next year. Screw those guys.

Anyway, I’ve been rambling for 3,000-plus words now, and I’m not sure we’re any closer to an answer. Ultimately, it seems, being a fan of a sports team is a completely arbitrary decision. It doesn’t matter if you’re basing it on the team’s location or its players or its mascot or its colors or its star player’s hilarious rap album. One reason is just as valid as the next. After all, these are games that are meaningless, when considered in a vacuum. They only have meaning because we ascribe meaning to them. And being a fan is the best way to increase your enjoyment of watching sports. If you have a vested interest in the outcome of the game, it becomes much more exciting. (I suppose gambling does the same thing. I also support gambling.) So root for the teams that excite you the most. Root for the teams that make you happy.

But… there’s a caveat.

You can’t just root for the best teams all the time. (Or the Yankees.) I mean, you can. And if that makes you happy, go for it. But be prepared to endure the scorn of other sports fans. Sports enthusiasts will view you the same way women view Tiger Woods. You will be the ultimate sleazeball. You have to be faithful to something, after all.

So here’s what I suggest: You have to be loyal to at least one “long-suffering” team. And if that team someday gets better and wins a championship, good for you. That’s the hope of every fan. But you have to accept the possibility that it might never happen (Pittsburgh Pirates fans, looking at you here). To satisfy this obligation, I have the Bills and Sabres. They also fulfill the home team obligation. This allows me to root for teams like the Lakers and now the Saints and the Boston Red Sox (who were once long-suffering, but are now basically a carbon copy of the Yankees, much as it pains me to say it). You need to have your misery-producing teams to balance out your guilty-pleasure teams.

That’s the key, a healthy mix of teams. After all, no one can root for losers all the time. You’ll eventually sink into a deep, inescapable depression. Trust me, I know. And if there’s a random game on, a game in which you don’t care about either team, choose one. Root for them as if you’ve loved them your whole life. View the other team’s players as personal incarnations of evil. It will make your afternoon much more interesting.

I find myself thinking about Klosterman again, about how guys who don’t care if the Celtics beat the Lakers don’t really care about anything. It doesn’t matter what your reasons are. It doesn’t matter whom you root for, so long as you root for someone.

-Nick

*I use the term “heavily favored” loosely. The spread was only about 5 points, which isn’t that much. But didn’t it seem like everyone believed the Colts would win? In the week leading up to the game, I couldn’t find another sane person who actually expected the Saints to win.

Advertisements

Can the Saints Win? Maybe.

February 6, 2010

So it’s a foregone conclusion, right? The Colts have this thing in the bag. Indy just put up 30 points on the league’s best defense in the AFC Championship game, they blew out the Ravens in the divisional round, they’re 16-0 in games they attempted to win this season, and they’re led by the best quarterback to ever play the game, fresh off his record fourth league MVP award.

The Colts are favored by 5 in Vegas, and it seems like everyone I talk to is in love with them. 58 percent of voters on ESPN.com say Indianapolis will win. That makes sense for a 5-point favorite. But some of the other polls on ESPN get weirder. 57 percent say the Colts have the edge on offense, even though the Saints had the best offense in the league this season. A whopping 82 percent say the Colts have the edge at quarterback. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to disrespect Peyton Manning. I’ve been a Manning fan for years. In the Manning/Brady debate, I always supported Peyton, even when Brady was up 3-0 in the rings department.  When I referred to Manning as “the best quarterback to ever play the game” a minute ago? I wasn’t being hyperbolic or ironic. I really believe that. Therefore, I must agree that Manning is a better quarterback than Drew Brees. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise, at least until Brees accomplishes some of the things that Peyton has. After all, Brees doesn’t have a championship or a single MVP award yet.

But as for which quarterback has the edge in this one, specific game… well, you could make an argument for Brees.

Admittedly, there’s more to football (and any sport, for that matter) than statistics, but take a look at the numbers. This season, Manning threw for more yards than Brees and was sacked fewer times. In almost every other statistical category, Brees was better. Brees threw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions. He had a higher quarterback rating. He had a better completion percentage (in fact, his 70.6 percentage was an NFL single-season record). So let’s stipulate that in the 2009 season, at least, Brees was Manning’s equal.

So why do so many fans overlook persuasive statistical evidence to the contrary and assume that the Colts are a better offensive team than the Saints? Call it the Manning Mystique. All the intangibles that make Manning so impressive – the audibles at the line of scrimmage, the way he reads defenses, the halftime adjustments, the fourth quarter comebacks, how he seems to be quarterback, offensive coordinator, and head coach all at once (he’s the NFL’s version of the Holy Trinity, in a way). And there’s more. The branding, the endorsements, the name, the ubiquitous image. Manning is the most identifiable man in the league, and that leads casual fans to the (understandable but not necessarily correct) assumption that he is always the best player in the game.

Some of these intangible factors deserve to be considered. A quarterback has some attributes that don’t show up on the stat sheet. And Manning certainly does have a flair for the dramatic, the clutch. His greatest strength is his preparation; there is probably no active player who understands the game better.

The Manning Mystique is part of the reason for the Colts’ perceived superiority. Equally important is the Saints’ underexposure. Drew Brees isn’t a household name. Casual fans outside New Orleans and San Diego probably don’t recognize his face. He’s not in commercials. He doesn’t host SNL (not yet, anyway). And the Saints haven’t been on national television nearly as often as the NFL’s royalty (Colts, Patriots, Cowboys, Steelers, and whatever team Brett Favre happens to be playing for). Hell, they’ve never even played in a Super Bowl. A lot of people who rarely watch NFL games or who claim they “only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials” must be looking at the names on the Saints’ roster and saying, “Who dat?”

It should be mentioned, too, that the Colts made a greater impression in their conference championship game. Manning made the Jets’ #1-ranked defense look positively silly, as he rolled up 377 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. The Colts fell behind 17-6 early, then took over late in the second quarter and cruised to a 30-17 win. Meanwhile, the Saints needed overtime and a parade of horrendous miscues by the Vikings to get a 31-28 win over Minnesota.

All right, so now we understand why the Colts are favored: they’ve got Peyton Manning on their side, they’re the more recognizable team, and they’re coming into the game after a bigger win. But here’s the thing – for most of the season, the Saints looked better than the Colts.

New Orleans won its first eight games by more than a touchdown. It was November 15 before someone kept the score close against them (and, oddly enough, their opponent was St. Louis). Meanwhile, the Colts eked out victories against such opponents as the Jaguars (14-12), the Dolphins (27-23), and the 49ers (18-14). Granted, a win’s a win. It doesn’t really matter what the margin of victory is. But I only want to point out that the Saints looked more impressive than the Colts most of the time.

Those who believe the Colts are invincible, an unstoppable juggernaut, would do well to watch film of the game when Indy came out flat and spotted the Texans a 17-point lead, or the game when Miami had a 2:1 advantage in time of possession but choked away the victory, or the one when they needed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the 49ers at home. And, of course, the game when the Patriots stomped all over the Colts in the first half (a game New England would have won if Bill Belichick had been sober).

The Saints had their problems, too. They spotted Miami a huge lead in the first half (though they ultimately won by 12). They let St. Louis keep it close for the whole game. They would have lost to Washington if the Redskins hadn’t gift-wrapped the victory for them. And, of course, the Vikings helpfully gave them the ball five times in the NFC Championship game.

The point is that the Saints and Colts are both great teams… and they’re both flawed. No one can say with certainty who will win the game on Sunday, and I won’t be surprised if the Colts come out on top. So I’m not going to give you a list of reasons why the Saints will win the Super Bowl. But here’s a list of reasons why they might:

1. Dwight Freeney’s bum ankle. The Colts, as a team, only had 34 sacks this season, and Freeney had 13.5 of them. He’s probably going to play in the Super Bowl, but he reportedly has a torn ligament in his ankle. Somehow, I doubt he’ll be very effective. Without him, it’s unlikely the Colts will be able to pressure Brees. And if they don’t pressure him, he will pick them apart. It doesn’t matter how good the coverage is. He’s the most accurate passer in the league. (Don’t believe me? It’s science.) Freeney’s injury could also have an effect on the running game. If I were calling the plays for the Saints, my game plan would prominently feature off-tackle running plays to Freeney’s side. Dwight is fast, but let’s see him catch Reggie Bush on one leg. And that brings us to…

2. Reggie Bush. Yes, I’m biased. I was paying to go to USC while Reggie was getting paid to do the same. (Haha, just kidding everybody. But we Trojans do like to cheat.) And I will admit he hasn’t lived up to his billing in the NFL so far. But the playoff game against Arizona proved that, when Reggie’s head is in the game and he’s properly pumped up, he can be a game-changer. Reggie is a fairly intense human being. I’ll be curious to see how he handles the pressure and excitement of the Super Bowl. You could see him bouncing off defenders and finding the end zone multiple times, as he did against the Cardinals, or he could get nervous and do silly things like fumble punts, as he did against the Vikings. Either way, the Colts will have to account for Reggie at all times, and that will make things easier for the rest of the offense.

3. Coaching. Game planning is of supreme importance in the Super Bowl. The Giants upset the Bills in Super Bowl XXV because Bill Parcells outcoached Marv Levy (and because Scott Norwood was not a reliable long-range kicker). The Patriots upset the Rams in XXXVI because Belichick outcoached Mike Martz. And, ironically, the Giants upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII because Belichick let his own hubris infect his team, and Tom Coughlin does not stand for hubris. Anyway, coaching is important. And we know that Sean Payton is an offensive mastermind who has had two weeks to prepare his team for this game. Jim Caldwell… well, we don’t know much about him. He could be the next Lombardi, or he could be the next Dick Jauron. (Not really a fair comparison because Jauron never reached a Super Bowl, but I like making jokes at his expense.)

4. The running game. I sort of covered this in the Reggie Bush paragraph, but here are some stats for you. The Saints were sixth in the NFL in rushing yardage and boasted a 4.5 yards per carry average in the regular season. The Colts were 32nd in rushing yardage with a paltry 3.5 yards per carry average. More and more, the NFL is becoming a passing game, but I still find it difficult to believe that the worst rushing offense in the league will win the championship. When you’re one-dimensional, you’re easier to beat. This, more than any other reason, is why Donovan McNabb hasn’t won a Super Bowl. He’s a great quarterback and the Eagles have had some great teams, but Andy Reid doesn’t bother to disguise the fact that he’s going to pass constantly. The 2009 Colts do the same thing. So did the 2007 Patriots. Also, everyone talks about how bad the Saints’ run defense is. The Colts actually gave up more rushing yards than the Saints this season. All this might be irrelevant. Super Bowl XLIV might turn into a passing contest. But if the Saints commit to the run and stick with it, it seems likely that the three-headed monster of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Reggie will have success.

5. The Colts’ win over the Jets might not have been as impressive as it looked. First of all, it’s been well documented that the Jets shouldn’t have been in the playoffs in the first place. If the Colts hadn’t rested Peyton against the Jets in Week 16, Indy wins the game and the Jets get eliminated. Secondly, everyone is going wild over the way Peyton tore up New York’s defense in the second half of the AFC Championship. Well, what did you expect to happen? I’m not taking anything away from Manning, who did a superb job, but the Jets were playing their third consecutive road playoff game – and they’d taken a cross-country trip to San Diego a week earlier. You know how marathon runners “hit the wall” at some point? I think the Jets’ defense hit the wall in the second half of the Colts game. They gave it everything they had, but the tank was empty.

6. The Saints’ defense. No, really. I’m not joking. Specifically, I’m referring to their ability to generate turnovers. Do I expect the Colts to be as sloppy as the Vikings? Of course not. But if Manning makes a mistake or two (and he’s not perfect), the Saints will capitalize. You know that Darren Sharper would love to return a pick for a TD in the Super Bowl. And putting aside the turnover issue, the Saints’ D is capable of slowing down a good offense, at times. They are healthier now than they’ve been for most of the season, and that helps. The Saints’ defense gave up a ton of yards against Minnesota, but they clamped down at a crucial time. The Vikings scored touchdowns on their first two drives and took an early 14-7 lead. Favre looked unstoppable. Then the Saints shut them down for the entire second quarter and let the offense get back into the game. The Vikings could barely get a first down in that quarter, let alone score. Even when Bush fumbled a punt and gave the Vikings a first and goal, the defense got the ball right back on a fumble recovery of their own. Clutch.

7. Desire. I’m usually skeptical of the “one team wanted it more” argument. It’s the Super Bowl. They both want it. But Manning and many of his teammates already won rings in Super Bowl XLI. The Saints have never been here before, and who knows if they’ll make it back again? They have the hopes and dreams of their entire city riding on them. The Colts cannot possibly want this game as much as the Saints do.

Okay, there you go. Seven reasons why the Saints might win this game. And even if they don’t, I’m just hoping Super Bowl XLIV lives up to its billing. If both teams play to their potential, it could be one of the most entertaining in history.

Official prediction: Saints 42 Colts 35

MVP: …well, it almost has to be Drew Brees if the Saints win, but that’s a boring prediction. So I’ll go out on a limb and say Marques Colston.

Lame excuses for why I haven’t been updating lately. At all.

November 6, 2009

Yeah, I’ve just been really busy. And I’ve been dedicating my limited writing time to a new creative project. Can’t give many details about it now and it’s only in its infancy, but I expect the finished product (if it’s ever finished) to be massive. I will provide a sneak peak at the opening chapters at some point in the future.

I wish I’d had more time for blogging, because some new books, albums, and movies have come out recently that I wanted to write about. I was very excited about Paranormal Activity but haven’t made it to a theater to see it yet for a variety of reasons; lack of time, laziness, needing to dedicate all day Sunday to watching football, not wanting to pay 11 goddamn dollars for a movie ticket, etc. But, anyway, I hear it’s cool and I do plan to check it out eventually. I also hope to see The Men Who Stare at Goats this weekend, if only because it has one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen.

In the meantime, there are some things I’ve been meaning to review and haven’t. So here they are, in very brief form.

The Resistance by Muse: Disappointing, especially after the brilliant Black Holes and Revelations. This new album is needlessly dense, inaccessible, and self-indulgent. I tried to like it, listened to it almost nonstop for about a week, and just couldn’t warm up to it. There are a few solid tracks (led by “Undisclosed Desires”), but the album as a whole is mediocre. Rating: 4/10

Blood’s a Rover by James Ellroy: Excellent, as usual. If you’ve never read Ellroy, you’re depriving yourself of one of the great pleasures in contemporary American fiction. Grab one of his books at your first opportunity. L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid would be good starting points. If I get the time and motivation, I will probably write something longer about this in the future, as I have plenty to say. Rating: 9.5/10

Say Anything by Say Anything: The next logical step in the progression of the best American band of this decade. This album came out on Tuesday and I’ve had it in constant rotation ever since. Compared to their previous records, this one is lighter and more accessible, pop and rock in equal measure. I don’t know if I would say it’s better than 2007’s In Defense of the Genre, but it does show the band’s growing maturity. Frontman Max Bemis is still seething (listen to lead single “Hate Everyone,” which is actually a lot more fun than the title would suggest), but now his rage is focused. Bemis is learning the difference between an irrational rant and incisive criticism, and his songs are better off for it. He’s a genius when it comes to song structure. “Mara and Me” is a dizzying, schizophrenic gem, as the band abruptly changes course multiple times in the same song. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Rating: 9/10

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown: OK, so I’ve read less than half of this book. Still, I’ve read enough to tell you that it’s pure, unadulterated, unmitigated shit. Brown lacks any semblance of an imagination, which is presumably why he keeps writing the exact same book over and over again. Just plug in a new conspiracy theory, a new freaky-looking villain, a new brainy female lead, add a cup of Robert Langdon, and — BOOM — instant worldwide bestseller. Brown is undoubtedly a very smart man and he does his homework. I have to give him credit for that; the book is meticulously researched. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. I can never shake the feeling that Brown would rather be writing history textbooks than novels. For my sake, I wish he would do so. Rating: 1/10.

OK, kids, that’s all for now. I’ll be back. Eventually.

Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?

September 1, 2009

Sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude. That was the title of a 2006 EP by the British rockers – it’s also the question they’re wrestling with on their newest album, Humbug. Arctic Monkeys became an overnight sensation in the UK with their 2006 debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. It was a good, fun collection of songs. But I’ve never fully understood why it inspired such mania. It was a little rough around the edges, with a few songs that weren’t particularly memorable (which was to be expected, since the band members were still in their teens at the time).

The Monkeys avoided the sophomore jinx in a big way with 2007’s Favourite Worst Nightmare. Stylistically, the songs weren’t much different from those on Whatever People Say… but the execution and the songwriting were exponentially better. Favourite Worst Nightmare was a high-speed, energetic, rollicking, catchy rock record, and it’s one of my favorites from this decade, along with Say Anything’s In Defense of the Genre and Butch Walker’s Letters.

Like any band that becomes very successful very quickly, Arctic Monkeys faced a big question: what to do next. Maybe they feared being pigeonholed, or maybe they just wanted to try something new. Either way, Humbug wound up bearing little similarity to the group’s first two albums. Where the band’s earlier work was fast-paced, energetic, and humorous, Humbug is slower, moody, and dark. The songs are less focused, placing a higher value on atmosphere than structure or narrative.

There’s nothing wrong with a band trying new things, of course; it would be a boring world if every artist just made the same record over and over. The problem with Humbug is that it eschews the characteristics that made Arctic Monkeys great in the first place. There are no songs with hooks like those in “Fluorescent Adolescent” or “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” none with the humor of “Brianstorm,” and none with the cathartic anger of “Do Me a Favour” (which singer Alex Turner ends by musing, “Perhaps ‘fuck off’ might be too kind”). With those qualities stripped away, they hardly seem like the same band. It’s like listening to an acoustic Rage Against the Machine album; it feels unnatural.

Seven of the album’s 10 songs were produced by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. I like Queens of the Stone Age a great deal, but Homme’s style of murky stoner rock did little to improve Arctic Monkeys’ sound. Homme and Turner have very different approaches to songwriting, and they just didn’t mesh well. In fact, three of the best songs on Humbug are the ones Homme didn’t produce (“My Propeller,” “Secret Door,” and “Cornerstone”). Homme does get credit, however, for producing the record’s standout track, lead single “Crying Lightning.” It’s the only song in which the dark, creepy atmosphere mixes with Turner’s cryptic lyrics to create something more than the sum of its parts. I have no idea what the song is about; Turner describes someone who used to play a game called Crying Lightning, which he either loved or hated, depending on what chorus you listen to. The person in question might be a former lover, or a childhood friend, or an odd neighborhood character, or (theoretically) an eccentric uncle. All we really know about this person is that his/her “pastimes consisted of the strange and twisted and deranged.” There also seems to be a preoccupation with candy and ice cream. And keep in mind; this is the album’s best song. It makes absolutely no sense and it’s not catchy in a conventional way, but listen to it a few times and it will get stuck in your head for days.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. With one notable exception, the songs’ lyrics run the gamut between vague and utterly incomprehensible. (Sample lyrics from “Secret Door” – “She swam out of tonight’s phantasm, grabbed my hand and made it very clear/There’s absolutely nothing for us here./It’s a magnolia celebration to be attended on a Wednesday night/It’s better that than get a reputation as a miserable little tyke/At least’s that the conclusion she came to in this overture.” Um… what?)

The one song that breaks through the lyrical inscrutability is “Cornerstone,” a straightforward, surprisingly powerful song in which Turner wanders from bar to bar and approaches women who remind him of the one who broke his heart, asking them (drunkenly, I presume) if he can call them her name. As for the other nine songs, I wish you luck putting their meanings together.

If I’m making it sound like this is a bad album, I apologize. By any reasonable standard, it’s a solid effort, but a slightly disappointing one, an experiment that almost – but not quite – worked. “Secret Door” (despite the lyrics) is a beautiful song, demonstrating how the Monkeys have matured and grown as musicians. And “Pretty Visitors” is somewhat reminiscent of the band’s earlier albums, with a quicker tempo and sharp lyrics during the verses; unfortunately, it bogs down in the chorus.

If I can take a crack at predicting the future, I would guess that years from now Humbug will be viewed as a transitional album for Arctic Monkeys, a bridge between Favourite Worst Nightmare and whatever comes next; hopefully a record that combines the best qualities of both. If the Monkeys keep developing as musicians and continue to experiment with atmosphere and tone, while retaining the hooks and the jeering punk sensibility that originally made them stars, they could make some jaw-dropping albums. They’re already a great band – they could be one of the best when they figure out who they really are.

Rating: 5.5 out of 10 (It would have been higher if Favourite Worst Nightmare hadn’t set the bar in the stratosphere. Seriously, how awesome is this song?)

Recommended tracks: Crying Lightning, Cornerstone, Secret Door, My Propeller

–Nick Roberts

Magnificent Basterds

August 25, 2009

I walked into Inglourious Basterds expecting to be disappointed. After all the good buzz, the many months of buildup, the excellent ensemble cast, and the irresistible premise of a bunch of Jewish-American soldiers hunting and killing Nazis during World War II, I thought there was no way Quentin Tarantino’s latest film could live up to the hype. Plus Death Proof had been the inferior half of Grindhouse and, as much as I loved both volumes of Kill Bill, neither lived up to the standard set by Tarantino’s early films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I wondered if Tarantino had peaked in the mid-‘90s.

My fears were quickly put to rest. Inglourious Basterds is brilliant. If there’s any justice in the world – and there may not be – it will receive plenty of attention when awards season comes around. In this film, Tarantino returns to form. He hasn’t been this good since Pulp Fiction. His usual flourishes are there – the verbose script, the division into multiple chapters, the converging storylines, and (in one scene) the director’s famous foot fetish. But while Tarantino retains the idiosyncrasies that make his work immediately recognizable, the new movie is a little more mature, a little more serious-minded than his previous films.

This is not to say there are no moments of dark humor or self-indulgence or excessive violence. No, those are found in abundance. The director probably is not capable of making a film with an entirely straight face, and that’s a good thing. There are many over-the-top moments in Inglourious Basterds, notably the introduction of ex-Nazi Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) and the inexplicable narration of Samuel L. Jackson. During these wacky bits, you can almost hear Tarantino chortling off-camera. But beneath the Tarantino trademarks is a serious, compelling story that will glue audiences to their seats and stick with them long after they go home. His stylistic conceits, rather than being the main attraction, serve as moments of levity while the plot moves steadily forward.

The promos for the film focused mostly on the Basterds themselves, the vengeful soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). While the Basterds are important figures throughout the movie, and they do supply much of the film’s entertainment value, the story does not really hinge on their quest to collect 100 Nazi scalps apiece. At the movie’s heart is Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a beautiful young Jewish woman who narrowly escapes being murdered by the Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, in a tour de force performance) in the film’s opening scene. The movie’s climax, and the most important storyline, concerns Shosanna’s attempt to exact her revenge several years later.

Inglourious Basterds works so well because Tarantino’s abilities as a writer are as sharp as ever. The dialogue crackles whether it’s in English, French, or German. I specifically remember two very long scenes that consist almost entirely of dialogue, but remain tight and suspenseful because Tarantino and his actors communicate subtext so well. In the first, Landa interrogates a French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) who is hiding Shosanna’s family beneath his floorboards. In the second, three of the Basterds disguise themselves as German officers and rendezvous with a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who is now spying for the British government. A real Gestapo officer intrudes on their meeting and insists on joining the Basterds and their famous friend for drinks. In both scenes, the characters play games of verbal cat-and-mouse. Col. Landa already knows the farmer is hiding Jews beneath his house, and the farmer knows he’s been caught. Likewise, the Gestapo officer strongly suspects the Basterds are not who they claim to be, and the Basterds know their cover could be blown any second. The characters are playing chicken with words. Who will blink first? Who will be the first to acknowledge that he knows that they know that he knows…

For the most part, the actors do an excellent job. This was probably not a challenging role for Pitt – he basically throws on an absurd cracker barrel accent and hams it up for the entire movie – but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Waltz deserves an Oscar nod for his creepy and surprisingly funny performance. And the two female leads, Kruger and Laurent, make their characters sympathetic and entirely believable. It’s easier to question the actors playing the Basterds, but most of them don’t get many lines anyway. Tarantino gave the role of Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz to friend and Hostel director Eli Roth, who is much better behind the camera than in front of it. Despite his limited skills as an actor, Roth sells the part well, if only because you get the impression that, had he been born a few decades earlier, he would have enjoyed brutally murdering some Nazis. Aside from Roth and Pitt, most of the Basterds get very little screen time, but I was pleased to see B.J. Novak (of The Office) pick up a few good scenes near the film’s end.

Many people use the word “auteur” to describe Tarantino. That’s partly because of the creative control he exerts over his films as both writer and director, and it’s partly because he has such a distinctive style. But “auteur” has a pretentious connotation that I don’t believe fits Tarantino’s philosophy. I could be wrong, but my guess is that he doesn’t consider what he does high art. Tarantino loves cheesy, low-class movies, kung-fu and blaxploitation and low-budget horror flicks, and his own work reflects these tastes. Tarantino is, first and foremost, a movie fan, and I always get the impression watching his films that his only goal is to make a flick that he would have enjoyed watching himself when he was a kid. Inglourious Basterds takes a strange turn near the end that might not work for some viewers. While most of the film is grounded in gritty realism, the ending explodes into highly stylized, surreal, bloody mayhem. I would love to describe it in detail, but doing so would spoil the ending for anyone who reads this. I believe that, when Tarantino wrote his ending, he asked himself how he would like to see a World War II film end if he were sitting in the audience, and he ended it that way. It’s outlandish and absurd and improbable, but it’s also very satisfying and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Tarantino ends Inglourious Basterds with a postmodern wink at the audience, a little nudge in the sides they can take home with them. The final line, delivered by Pitt’s Aldo Raine, could also be Tarantino’s assessment of his own movie. And, while I won’t spoil the line for you, I will say this – both Raine and Tarantino could be right.

–Nick Roberts

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Why Can’t You Be Like When I Was Thirteen? (Review: Third Eye Blind’s Ursa Major)

August 21, 2009

In order to properly review Third Eye Blind’s latest release, Ursa Major, I’ll need to take a trip back in time to 1997, those glorious days when the economy was thriving, most people still had dial-up, and teenage girls cried their eyes out to Titanic. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that great. Still.

It’s only appropriate that I’m kicking off the blog with a Third Eye Blind review. Their self-titled debut was my first musical love. I grew up in a house where country music dominated the stereo. We didn’t have cable, so I never watched MTV or VH1. Apparently I wasn’t curious enough to spin the radio dial and see what was on the other stations. So, until I was 12 or so, I only understood rock music as a vague concept, not something I actually experienced. Around that time, I started listening to modern rock radio on the advice of my friends, who assured me there were musicians besides Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire.

So it’s the summer of ’97, and my 12-year-old self is ready to throw his rock fist in the air. I turn on Buffalo’s rock station – 103.3 The Edge – and expand my cultural horizons.  I realize two things immediately: First, I don’t particularly like country music. Second, this “do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do” song is lodged in my brain and won’t get out. I heard “Semi-Charmed Life” once and was hooked. (Interestingly, I had the same experience at roughly the same time with Better Than Ezra’s “Desperately Wanting,” but didn’t become a big BTE fan for another decade or so.)

I didn’t invest in the band immediately. I kept listening to the radio, hoping to hear “Semi-Charmed Life” or one of the band’s other tunes, but I wasn’t inspired to drop the 15 bucks for the CD until “How’s it Going to Be” hit the charts. 3EB’s debut was the first album I ever purchased, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. I listened to it constantly throughout junior high. While chatting with my first girlfriend on AIM, I typed out the lyrics to “I Want You.” When the same girl dumped me, I imagined standing outside her house and blasting “Losing a Whole Year,” Lloyd Dobler-style. Maybe these things should be embarrassing, but they’re not. I was a kid, and this is how kids relate to music.

Yet, somehow, Third Eye Blind never faded away like my other adolescent musical obsessions. I mean, I no longer feel an urge to listen to Sugar Ray or Smash Mouth, but I’ve kept 3EB’s debut on constant rotation for more than a decade. The same goes for the band’s 1999 follow-up, Blue (which I consider the best Third Eye Blind album, though most people – including other hardcore fans – would disagree with me on this point) and 2003’s Out of the Vein. Neither of those subsequent efforts enjoyed nearly as much success as the eponymous debut, but both are excellent, in their own ways. Out of the Vein is the band’s weakest album, but it contains some gems, especially “Wake For Young Souls,” arguably the group’s best song.

Anyway, Out of the Vein hit stores about a month before I graduated high school. Even though six years had passed since I first heard the irresistible hook of “Semi-Charmed Life,” I still felt like basically the same kid I’d been all along. Then six more years went by.

Between the release of Out of the Vein and last week’s release of Ursa Major, a lot of things changed for me. I got a high school diploma. I got a bachelor’s degree. I got a master’s degree. I lost a shitload of weight. I wrote a novel. I made friends and lost some of them. I almost went crazy. I met the love of my life, who coincidentally also adores Third Eye Blind. I worried that I might not relate to the group’s music as I had when I was younger.

Was I right about that?

Sort of. The new album doesn’t resonate with me the way the first two records did, but that’s not necessarily the music’s failing. It might just be that I’ve gotten older and pop/rock songs don’t seem to define my life as they once did. Once you reach a certain age, you realize that lyrics written by other people don’t actually describe you or your life or your relationships. Some people criticize Stephan Jenkins’s lyrics for being shallow or pompous or goofy, but what are they looking for? Can you name a single contemporary rock band that says anything profound? When I want profundity and insight, I read literature. To me, that’s not the function of rock music. So I don’t feel a deep personal connection to Ursa Major. In the album’s standout song, “Why Can’t You Be,” Jenkins asks, “Why can’t you be like when I was thirteen?” That’s how I felt about the record on first listen. I wanted them to be the band I fell in love with as a kid. I wanted the record to be a soundtrack to this particular stage in my life. It’s not. But it’s not because Third Eye Blind isn’t the same band that entranced me all those years ago. It’s because I’m not the same person I was back then. That being said, Ursa Major is pretty damn good.

The record’s one glaring weakness is that it’s overtly political in a way none of Third Eye Blind’s other albums were. These days, I can’t help but roll my eyes every time an entertainer gets up on a soapbox and talks about politics. Sure, they’re entitled to their opinions, but it’s like they think being famous makes them experts on foreign policy. The album’s first single, “Don’t Believe a Word,” is an anti-Bush rant. Maybe the song would have struck a chord in 2005, but considering Obama has been president for seven months, it feels outdated and obvious. At this point, saying bad things about the Bush administration is like saying good things about puppies. Unless you’re Dick Cheney or Michael Vick, it’s expected of you. “Don’t Believe a Word” is a perfectly good, catchy rock song – and one that I like very much – but it’s better if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics.

The main problem with the political songs is that Jenkins doesn’t write about large issues nearly as well as he does about smaller, personal stories. “About to Break” is the album’s best song musically, but the lyrics are all over the map. Jenkins tries to cover so many topics – religious conservatives, misanthropy, drug abuse, gay rights, etc. – in a single track that none of them gets more than a superficial treatment. As always, Third Eye Blind’s best songs are about personal relationships and loss (see “Motorcycle Drive By,” “Wounded,” and “Wake For Young Souls”).  “One in Ten” is a short, simple song about loving an unattainable woman. It’s not particularly original from a thematic perspective – I think Weezer did it best with “Pink Triangle” – but Jenkins’s vulnerable vocals and the delicate horns make it effective nonetheless. And then there’s “Why Can’t You Be.” Jenkins might deliver some laughably cheesy lines in the political songs, but this track’s lyrics remind me of why I fell in love with the band in the first place. “Why can’t you be like an art house foreign movie, frank and sexy, red balloons and ennui?” he sings. And though I might have trouble explaining those words, I know exactly what he means.

There’s been an interesting debate recently about Third Eye Blind’s contemporary relevance and their proper place in the pantheon of 90s bands. (New York magazine’s website posted a couple snarky articles on the subject, which you can find here and here.) The most devout fans hail the band’s members, Jenkins in particular, as visionaries and musical geniuses, while the critics decry them as a ridiculous, shallow pop group. The truth lies somewhere in between.

There’s a telling moment near the end of “Summer Town,” one of the most complex and fascinating tracks on Ursa Major. Full disclosure: I really enjoy this song. But I also realize that it’s a cheesy, absurd, overblown pop tune. It’s catchy and enjoyable, but you have to shudder at lines like “rock a fanny pack now from the front.”  Near the end of the song, Jenkins casually mentions Vladimir Nabokov, and somehow that exemplifies Third Eye Blind for me. Stephan Jenkins is a smart, talented, literary dude who also happens to be a goofball and… well… sort of a jackass. But he (along with bandmates Tony Fredianelli and Brad Hargreaves) knows how to produce a great record, and how to write a collection of very catchy, pleasing songs. Ultimately, I think that’s enough. What more do you want from a rock band?

Some of the band’s fans will say that Ursa Major is a huge disappointment compared to the group’s earlier work, which they have been able to dissect and analyze and obsess over for years and years. Other fans, overjoyed that we finally have a new 3EB record after six long years of waiting, will hail it as an instant classic, a masterpiece. Both sides are wrong. Ursa Major doesn’t reach the soaring heights of the band’s first two records, but it’s better than Out of the Vein and represents a perfectly worthy and respectable addition to Third Eye Blind’s body of work.

Twelve years later, Third Eye Blind can still make an infectious, catchy, quality pop/rock album. And even though I might not be the same kid I was in 1997, I still want something else to get me through this life.

— Nick Roberts

Rating: 8/10

Recommended Tracks: Why Can’t You Be, About to Break, One in Ten, Summer Town