In Week 8, the Giants (5-2) and the Patriots (5-2) both had a worse record than the perennially disappointing Lions (6-2). What other team had a 5-and-2 record that week? The Bills, who started off the season on an improbable four-game win streak, including a Week 3 win at home against the Patriots, and seemed headed for the playoffs for the first time since the last millennium. (They finished the season a less-than-respectable but expected 6-10, proof that a solid beard and a Harvard education can only take you so far in the NFL.) The Broncos, coming off a 1-4 start that had resulted in Tim Tebow replacing Kyle Orton as QB1, were languishing at 2-5. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers hadn’t lost a game, and the Colts hadn’t won one. The 49ers had figured out a way to kindle early ’90s nostalgia even without a particularly exciting quarterback. And then everything collapsed into predictability; even the upsets were the ghosts of playoffs past (Giants over Packers), or the inevitable end of a streak of improbable successes (Giants over 49ers). But between Weeks 1 and 17, there were a few moments, a few narrative threads, a few players worth remembering. They’ll tide me over until next week, at which point I’ll have no choice but to grin and bear my way through what promises to be a very good Super Bowl between two teams I totally hate.
Best Quarterbacks You Probably Hate: Jay Cutler and Tony Romo
Sports writers hate Jay Cutler. NFL players hate Jay Cutler. And after the disappointment of the 2010 season, when the Bears were eliminated by the Packers in the playoffs after Cutler left the game with a knee injury, even his own teammates seemed to hate Jay Cutler. Scrambling behind an ineffective offensive line, he spent the first weeks of the 2011 season either throwing passes to receivers who seemed determined to drop them, or getting sacked. Then he went out for the season with an injury—this time to his thumb. Cutler’s gotten a considerable amount of flack for letting injuries prevent him from playing, as if the offensive line’s failure to defend him from blitzing defenses was his problem. And giving your body the time it needs to recuperate isn’t cowardly. A sports fan who wants a player to go back on the field injured is a sports fan who has ceased to see that player as an actual human being; he has become a physical vehicle for the fan’s own wish fulfillment. Besides, if Cutler hadn’t been forced to sit the second half of the season out, we would never have gotten to see a high school football coach, Josh McCown, start against the Packers on Christmas Day—and do pretty well. Anyway, now there’s good (presumably) news on the horizon for the erstwhile QB: He’s having a baby with on-again-off-again fiancée Kristin Cavallari. Cutler famously dumped Cavallari right after she’d appeared in Us Weekly modeling wedding dresses; let’s hope he doesn’t pull a Tom Brady and leave her again before she has the baby.
Hating the Cowboys might be your patriotic duty. David Roth detailed the vileness of Jimmy Johnson’s organization and its uniquely loathsome band of partisans with both eloquence and rigor last season; unless you were born or raised in Dallas, there’s no reason to root for them. There is, however, reason to feel a little sorry for quarterback Tony Romo. His career passer rating—96.9—ranks as the second best of all time. As a starter, his winning percentage is over 60 percent. And yet no one seems to like him. It could be the injuries: Since 2006, his first season as a starter, he’s broken the little finger on his throwing hand and his left clavicle, and injured his ribs multiple times. It could be his personal life: The year he dated Jessica Simpson the Cowboys were upset the second round of the playoffs. It could be that he doesn’t perform well in high-pressure games (1-3 in the playoffs) and he throws interceptions at ludicrously inopportune times. But I feel for him, the same way I feel for Alex Smith; it’s hard to build momentum season to season when your head coach keeps getting fired. Just watch the first 30 seconds of this game-winning drive against the 49ers back in September:
It’s enough to make you hope he gets traded to a team you can root for.
Best Ryan Brother in the NFL: Rob
Speaking of the Cowboys, have you taken a look at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan recently? You can have your Clay Matthewses and your Troy Polamalus; I will happily take that flowing white mane. I think Ryan may actually be Poseidon in human disguise. (This was first noticed by a friend of mine, whose opinions on football I take very seriously despite his being a Patriots fan.) Evidence in favor: the hair, which I swear has some stray seashells stuck in it. Evidence against: He hasn’t been harnessing the power of the sea very effectively on defense.
Quarterbacks Most Worthy of Grudging Respect: Drew Brees and Kyle Orton
If you’ve ever wondered why Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino agreed to appear in both a Jim Carrey movie and an Adam Sandler movie, the answer is, he’s never won a Super Bowl. So I tremble at the potential consequence of Drew Brees breaking Marino’s single-season passing record. What’s next: a cameo in an Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel? A reality television gig (I Was a Starting Quarterback, Get Me Out of Here!)? And Marino’s congratulatory tweet—“Great job by such a special player”—seemed vaguely sinister, something you would say to a Brees voodoo doll before sticking a pin in its throwing arm. Still, though I refuse to get on the Saints bandwagon, I respect Brees’s achievement. That lone Super Bowl ring is getting old (as is he); he should break records while he still can. As for Marino, he can take solace in the fact that he’s a better actor than Brett Favre, known to non-football fans primarily as the supremely awkward dude who ruined the end of There’s Something About Mary.
Kyle Orton has started for three teams—the Bears, the Broncos, and the Chiefs—since he debuted in 2005. He’s the kind of quarterback to whom the term “journeyman” is applied. Not terrible but never impressive, he’s constantly being replaced in favor of more exciting prospects (Cutler, Tebow), shuffling off to the next, less prestigious team, where he inevitably wears a different number. It’s a career bound to be full of disappointments, which is why, despite my love for the Packers, I found his Week 15 upset of an undefeated Green Bay uplifting—especially since it was Orton’s first start for the Chiefs since being traded away from Denver. At 29, on an underperforming team, Orton isn’t going to have many more games like that one.
Easiest Way to Lose Underdog Goodwill: Jim Harbaugh vs. Jim Schwartz
Two teams who have had a string of disappointing seasons but are suddenly performing well duel for four thrilling quarters. One team comes out on top, handing the other its first defeat. There is the sweet taste of victory; there is the agony of defeat; and then there is Jim Harbaugh exposing his belly and getting into a shouting match with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. This was a pointless fight; both coaches should have saved their anger for the teams that would eliminate them from the playoffs.