Monday, April 5, 2010

Don't Buy the Cool

In the dead of night, on a national holiday no less, two of the league’s most storied franchises changed their entire image and strategy, as well as the face of their division (if not the league as a whole). What has followed has been bizarrely relaxed, with the media and the teams selling this as a simple business transaction, just the way of their world. Make no mistake; this alters the world of the NFL down to its core, from the signifiers we see in the public speech to the fundamental convictions that have driven the league throughout the modern era.

On a game strategy level, the NFC East just got completely upended. The Redskins, who for so long have been making desperate grabs for the talent to keep up with their more organically constructed peers, have finally found the piece that lets them take the lead. McNabb, unlike every other high profile acquisition they’ve made, has value outside of himself; he validates the previous decisions, giving them value they may not have otherwise had. Any Washington fan that isn’t excited about having their offense led by McNabb instead of Jason Campbell doesn’t deserve a winning team because they don’t understand what a “winner” is. Whether or not McNabb was ever going to achieve ultimate victory in a city that refused to embrace him is one thing (last I checked, though, there was still crime in Gotham City...); it is another thing entirely to say that McNabb isn’t a winner. He’s missed the playoffs just twice in his entire career, and has a postseason resume that every quarterback without a ring should envy. The man knows what victory tastes like. Oh, and he’s at his best when he’s pissed; check what he did after his benching two seasons ago.

He’s also one of the most statistically dominant quarterbacks of the last decade, putting up all-world numbers with a faceless gang of second tier talents (with one very high profile exception). On Washington, he enters an offense with similarly unheralded pass catchers, except this group is made up of potential entering its prime (whatever that means). Fred Davis, Devin Thomas, and Malcom Kelly are entering the all important third year, this time with a quarterback who has made a career out of marking unmarked terms at receiver. Chris Cooley is the truth, and is probably writing an “inappropriate” blog post as we speak. Buying into McNabb is, in essence, buying into the foundation the Redskins have already been building. Throw in the possibility of a franchise altering rookie left tackle (Okung) and a ground game that will be built on cycling fresh legs (as opposed to the previous “let’s recklessly endanger Clinton Portis” plan), and it’s hard not to feel the change in the air of the NFC East.

If the battle strategy aspects of this is bewildering in its implications, the war strategy aspects are damn near unprecedented. These two teams hate each other. They bitterly loathe losing to one another. The thought of either one of these teams doing anything to avoid harming the other team seems crazy to anyone who has watched this rivalry, let alone actually helping them succeed. Yet here we see a kind of “I’m OK; you’re OK” social redistribution that runs against every competitive football front office philosophy we’ve known. Any football philosophy, and certainly those driving division rivalries, has historically dictated that one thing is true: You win the war by focusing on winning the individual battles. Your team succeeds based on causing your opponents for the season to fail, and there are literally no opponents that need to be defeated more than divisional rivals. Certainly both sides are engaging in gamesmanship, with each thinking they’ve outsmarted the other, but that sort of shrewd negotiation is meant for distant enemies to use across oceans; blood feuds at the doorstep get settled with silence or violence. In jettisoning McNabb, the Eagles have essentially said that their enemy, the Redskins, isn’t as threatening as history has taught us, or that the rivalry was all business, with this transaction simply another calculation in the ledgers of competing firms. Two of the teams that helped create the metaphor of football rivalry as war have traded swords for calculators and soldiers for accountants. The blood is removed from the blood feud.

Of course, this sort of tidy endpoint ignores that there is an enemy in all of this. However the teams and the media may downplay it, the Eagles have exchanged rivalry built on history for enmity built on personal passion, because this is VERY personal to Donovan McNabb. You think he was insulted by the idea that the organization he’d given his legacy to was now set against him staying? What does it say that the same organization, rather than exile him to irrelevance, has made him a pawn in their “greater” war? Fine, they say that they were trying to respect his wishes, but how often do people in any relationship say things acting as dares, to see just what the other party thinks of what they’ve built? Well, in moving McNabb to the Redskins, the Eagles have given him his answer. This is the only thing worse than love becoming hate; this is indifference. Trading McNabb to the Redskins isn’t “I don’t love you anymore,” but rather “I don’t think I ever loved you at all.”

Ironically, that’s the answer that makes blood boil hottest. Every time McNabb sets foot on the field to face his old team, he’ll seek to force their acknowledgement the only way left, by killing them. Every time the Skins go to Philadelphia, the boos he heard on draft day will have been validated as the truth behind a decade of false friendship hiding cold utility, and unlike so many other players who fall victim to what is the “simple business” of football, he’ll be angry, whether or not he ever admits it. That anger is what will define this rivalry for as long as he plays in Washington. What was once “we don’t like them because that’s the way it is” is now “we don’t like them because of HIM.” Personally, I’m glad to see a feud in the league with a little flesh behind it; it gives the passion significance beyond the numbers. Still, one has to wonder whether or not the Eagles ever stopped to consider that they’ve exchanged their war for a vendetta, and that turning Donovan McNabb into an enemy, after he spent a career building goodwill and saw it become something dirty, makes things much more complicated than they ever intended.

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