southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Beautiful Game

Football is a sport that ought to be played exclusively outdoors with and among the elements, not in a dome conveniently sheltered from them.  Just as the players, coaches and referees have a role to play in each game, Mother Nature, too, should be allowed to play hers.  This week’s Monday Night Football game delivered yet another sterling example of this self-evident truth.  Normally fair-weathered and balmy, Charlotte, North Carolina – the town in which I was born and raised – played host to the bright lights of MNF and the Indianapolis Colts.  These folks had long been on the guest list.  An unexpected visitor, however, also showed up at the party – a monsoon.  What transpired over the next 4 hours in the sopping wet Queen City was nothing if not a thing of beauty.

Admittedly, the beauty of which I speak stands in stark contrast to the spectacular offensive display produced by the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants just one day earlier.  Set comfortably within the temperature-controlled confines of the Superdome, Drew Brees and Eli Manning combined to throw 13 touchdown passes between them, setting a single game record.  It was as if the two were playing a game of H.O.R.S.E., with each shot becoming decidedly more difficult.  It was clear that the winner would be whomever shot last.  It was quite a spectacle to witness; and, I would surmise, it typified what most contemporary fans have come to consider a beautiful game in today’s pass-happy NFL.

Conversely, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck were a combined 2 for 13 passing at one point in the 2nd quarter.  It was a small victory – and huge relief for fans – each time the center to quarterback exchange was executed properly.  Throughout much of the night, the Panthers secondary seemed to be Luck’s favorite target.  Newton was only marginally less generous to his opponent.  He alternated between throwing high and wide of open receivers, and skidding the ball off the soggy turf.  And when Newton did throw a gem of a pass, the Panthers’ receivers seemed to be playing a game of “hot potato.”  Even the sure-handed Greg Olsen dropped a perfectly placed ball, with the closest defender somewhere near Rock Hill.  The uninvited guest – Mother Nature in all her splendor – was seemingly crashing this Monday Night soiree.  Moreover, at this point, I am guessing the broad majority of viewers would have gladly banished Mother Nature from the party in exchange for some semblance of precision play.

Adding to an already bizarre night, the MNF audience was treated to a fairly amazing – and somewhat scary – security breach as two protesters rappelled from the upper deck of Bank of America Stadium to unfurl a sign complaining about, well, Bank of America.  Though shocking, with the way the game was unfolding on the field below, I was stunned to see that the protesters were not lodging a complaint against the shoddy play of the two quarterbacks.  The stats, after all, were downright comical.  As for the daredevils in the monsoon, their lives also would have been made easier had they turned this trick in a dome as the inclement weather seemed to hamper their rappelling efforts.

While head coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox often proclaimed – in his best Donald Trump impersonation – that “stats are for losers.”  Unlike his penchant for the 3rd down and long draw play, Foxy got this one right.  Particularly on a night like Monday, the two quarterbacks needed to forget about their stats, or any pretense of normalcy for that matter.  The game more closely resembled a Monster Truck event than a Taylor Swift concert.  The chunks of turf strewn about the field borne the proof.  Newton and Luck needed to fight, claw, motivate, inspire, coax, push and prod – anything, everything to lead their respective teams to victory.

In the second half, that anything and everything happened.  Cam employed dazzling footwork to elude tacklers and avoid sure sacks, nifty runs – particularly on third down – to move the chains while simultaneously demoralizing the defense, and gravity-defying passes to stretch the Carolina lead to 17 points with just over 10:00 minutes left in the game.  These Colts, it seemed, had been tamed; any buck long since gone.

It was just at this moment that Mother Nature took a timeout; her torrential rains softening to a whimper, as did the Panthers pass rush.  Luck would waste no time taking advantage of his newfound luck.  Having completed just 5 passes for 40 yards up to that point, Luck began to find his footing – and, ironically, his feet as a way to buy precious time and gain critical yards.  Stealing this page from the Super-Cam playbook, Luck seemed to reinvigorate his entire team, as if this stormy night had delivered a lightning bolt of energy to the hobbling Colts.  The result was a barrage of 20 unanswered points that left Carolina – and their drenched fans – staggered and in disbelief.  Hold on to your umbrellas; the party was just getting started.

After falling behind by a field goal in overtime, the collective mood in Bank of America Stadium was as bleak as the weather.  Displaying a resolve and resilience typical of an elite quarterback, Cam picked his team up off the rain-drenched mat and showed them that there was still light at the end of this foggy tunnel.  Undeterred by a gut-wrenching drop by blazer Ted Ginn, Jr. that would have yielded the game winning touchdown, Newton calmly moved his team into field goal range to tie the game.  After the Panthers defense secured another interception from Luck, Graham Gano knocked home a 52-yard field goal to finally – and mercifully for all those fans having to work on Tuesday – put an exclamation point on this Monday night bash.  “It wasn’t pretty,” Newton candidly offered in describing the melodrama that had just culminated in another Carolina victory.  I beg to differ, Super-Cam; it was beautiful.

Interestingly, when you hear folks talk nostalgically about great football games past, Mother Nature quite often played a part.  The infamous “Tuck Rule Game” between the Raiders and Patriots in the 2001 AFC playoffs is also known as the “Snow Bowl” for obvious reasons.  In addition to being part of Tom Brady’s Wall of Fame, Adam Vinatieri leapt to fame for having drilled two field goals in the driving snowstorm, the first of which sent the game into overtime and the second providing the game winner.  (Coincidentally, Vinatieri, who is 42, is still kicking 14 years later, and was incredible in Monday night’s game for the Colts.)  Would this game be etched so deeply into our collective football psyche sans the wicked weather?

The 1967 “Ice Bowl” is widely considered one of the greatest games in football history.  It is immortalized as such due to the game-time temperature at Lambeau Field being -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average wind chill of -48 Fahrenheit.  In the end, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers would defeat Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League Championship game; however, the winner and loser are far less memorable than the harrowing weather conditions in which they played.  The surreal video footage in which each exhale of breath is marked by a thick white cloud; the band’s halftime performance being canceled as a result of the woodwind instruments being frozen and rendered soundless; and the referees’ metal whistles sticking to their bloody lips are all mementos from this game preserved neatly for posterity.

What’s more, the great scenes replicated across the country on Sunday afternoons in the Fall and Winter take place primarily in open air stadiums.  From the drizzle in Seattle, the fog in San Francisco, the heat and sudden thunderstorms in Miami and Tampa, to the often cold, blustery and snowy stadiums of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and New England, the elements have a story to tell, and they should not be silenced.  Tellingly, I am guessing one would be hard pressed to find the following on a bucket list: gotta get to Atlanta to see the Falcons play in that soulless, character-deprived dome of theirs…or Indianapolis….or Detroit….or St. Louis.

Soccer lays claim to being the beautiful game, with which I have no problem.  But as a football fan (American, that is), there is nothing more beautiful than watching two teams overcome the elements, and each other, to figure out a way to win in extreme conditions.  Far from crashing the Monday Night party, Mother Nature turned out to be the featured guest.  She provided the entertainment, charm and character; indeed, like any good partygoer, she ensured that all attendees had a memorable evening.  Perhaps if the game would have been played in a dome – say in Indianapolis – it would have been less messy, more artful, fluid and aesthetically pleasing.  Perhaps, more records would have been broken.  But, from my perspective at least, it could not have been more beautiful.

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November 18, 2015 Posted by | Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, ESPN, Indianapolis Colts, MNF, Monday Night Footbal, National Football League, NFL, Quarterback, Ron Rivera, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elite Quarterback Club: The Newest Member

The Carolina Panthers will go as far as Cam Newton can carry them on his broad shoulders, rifle-like right arm and nimble wheels. Admittedly, this is not a small, feeble limb on which I have climbed. Quarterback being the most important position in football, the same statement might be made about other, if not most, teams in the League. But the 2015 version of the Carolina Panthers is different. Following the season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin, the receiving corps lacks a dominant threat, let alone a true #1 wideout. Indeed, it is a patchwork of oddly mixed players masquerading as a receivers group. Just listen to most, if not all, pundits and you are quick to learn the consensus that the Carolina Panthers – while still undefeated – will ultimately be undone by their offensive mediocrity.

Of course, teams of glory past have ridden uninspiring offenses to the highest of heights. The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl in 2000 relying on the limited ability of quarterback Trent Dilfer and a don’t-mess-things-up offensive philosophy. Like those Ravens, the Panthers boast a stout defense led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly – their very own version of Ray Lewis. On offense, though, these Panthers lack the type of weapons that one would typically associate with a Super Bowl contender. Running back Jonathan Stewart is running hard and tough, but is averaging a somewhat pedestrian 3.77 yards per carry. In his (and the offensive line’s) defense, it is tough sledding against primarily 8 man boxes. Cam Newton’s security blanket, and clearly his most trusted target, is tight end Greg Olsen, who is undoubtedly among the League’s best. Besides Newton, Olsen represents the only legitimate threat on offense.

Cameron Newton is currently immersed in his fifth season as the Carolina Panthers quarterback after being selected first overall in the 2011 NFL draft. The results to this point can best be characterized as uneven. Panthers’ fans have been treated to spectacular play in the previous four years, interspersed with stretches marked by inaccuracy, poor decisions and, according to many detractors, immaturity. Nevertheless, for the first time in franchise history, Newton has led the Panthers to back-to-back NFC South championships and a corresponding spot in the NFL Playoffs. But in neither year were the Panthers able to get past the second round. All this is to say, at least in my view, that Newton has been a good – sometimes very good – quarterback over his first four years, but not an elite one.

So far, through five games of Year 5, Cam Newton has climbed into the realm of the elite – that stratosphere of quarterback nobility where only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady currently reside. Cam became a card-carrying member of this group as a result of his heroics in Sunday’s road win in Seattle. Every championship team, and every transformational player, has a defining moment – a particular play, set of plays, or entire game in which adversity is at a fever pitch, yet is met with a calm resolve and is valiantly and heroically overcome. For Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, this moment came last Sunday in the Pacific Northwest.

Great players, and great teams, inevitably have a nemesis – a villain that ultimately must be vanquished if you are to reach the pinnacle. Though not a division rival, the Seattle Seahawks play this role for these Panthers. Prior to Sunday, the Seahawks and Panthers had faced off 4 times the past 3 years, with three of the four being in Charlotte. The 3 regular season games were decided by a combined, and miniscule, 13 points; despite this, the Panthers tasted victory in none. In the 4th game of this set, the Seahawks ended Carolina’s playoff run last year with a workmanlike 31-17 victory in which Carolina, and Cam Newton, came unraveled under the intensity of the 4th quarter pressure. For Panthers fans, Seattle is where many a nightmare begin and end. So much so that I have given up Starbucks, and refuse to order my books from Amazon.

Setting aside the historical record, Seattle is a tough place to play for any team, but especially for an East Coast team. There is the lengthy flight across the continental U.S.; the 3 hour time difference; and in this case, a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call as a result of someone’s having pulled the fire alarm – coincidentally, I’m sure – on only the Panthers’ floors of the team hotel. Sleepless in Seattle, Part Two. Once at the stadium, Seattle’s vaunted 12th Man is notorious for making the opposition’s ears bleed with noise which regularly registers on the Richter scale. Rising above all this, however, is the simple fact that Seattle is a darn good team. Until Sunday, quarterback Russell Wilson enjoyed a career record of 24-2 within the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. Oh, and there is the minor detail that the Seahawks have participated in the last two Super Bowls.

It was against this ominous backdrop that Cam Newton led his undefeated Carolina Panthers to Kings County, Washington to face a familiar foe. Through three quarters, the game played out as a sequel to the others, as if the script had been plagiarized. Carolina played well for much of the game, but Seattle was even better – playing opportunistic defense, moving the ball methodically on offense, and mixing in big plays throughout. This movie, it seemed, would have the same ending.

With a nod to Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. Particularly impressive against Seattle’s formidable defense, the Panthers used four 80 yard touchdown drives to ultimately best the Seahawks on this day. The Panthers offense is like my mom’s Camry – it gets nowhere fast, but get there it will. Cam saved the final two beauties to erase a 9 point deficit with just over 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter. After pulling within 3 points with 3:55 to play, Ron Rivera kicked the ball away thereby entrusting his reliable defense to get the ball back a final time. The defense contained the ever-elusive Wilson, and the Seattle offense, rewarding Coach Rivera’s trust. With two minutes and 20 seconds with which to work, Cam brought the offense back on the field secure in the knowledge that a field goal would be good enough to send the game into overtime. Eschewing such mundane thoughts, Cam, unbelievably, completed passes to six different Panthers, culminating with his 26 yard strike to Greg Olsen for the winning score.

During the two 4th quarter 80 yard touchdown drives, Cam was 11 for 13 passing. Notably, however, the two incompletions were a drop by Devin Funchess on a perfectly placed ball on a dig route, and a spike into the ground to stop the clock. In other words, Newton was perfect. Consider: all this without his best receiver, with the weight of history on his shoulders, the intensity and glare of the moment, and the Seattle crowd in a state of euphoria. Perfection despite the elements.

Following the winning touchdown to Olsen, Cam’s frantic celebration with his teammates, Carolina fans in the crowd, and the suddenly stunned Seattle fans, underscored just how big a moment this clearly was.   The unthinkable had just happened. The nightmare that was the Seattle Seahawks had just ended. In an instant, Goliath was lying helplessly on the ground, in his own forum no less. For Carolina fans, it was hard to know exactly what to do with themselves. As for me, I celebrated the victory by visiting two old friends: I ordered an iced caramel macchiato (one shot of Joe) from Starbucks, and my newest book – Napoleon: A Life – from Amazon.

While Sunday’s win will only count once in the standings, all victories are not created equal. What we witnessed at CenturyLink Field might well have been the Carolina Panthers casting aside old demons, gleaning an infusion of new confidence, and getting over the proverbial hump. The remaining 11 regular season games together with any playoff games will shed light on this hunch. But what I am sure we undoubtedly witnessed in Seattle last Sunday was the emergence of a star. A star who now happens to be the newest member of the Elite Quarterback Club, rendering this year’s Club a Triumvirate. Will Cam keep his seat beside Brady and Rodgers at this ultra-exclusive club? Of course, only time will tell. If Sunday was any indication, he will be a longstanding member.

October 25, 2015 Posted by | Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, CenturyLink Field, Greg Olsen, NFL, Quarterback, Seattle, Seattle Seahawks, Tom Brady | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment