Something I’ve always struggled with as a fan of football is when a player’s hype doesn’t match what I see to be his essential ability. I’ve ranted over at The Lions in Winter about how Daunte Culpepper’s “MVP Caliber” reputation followed him around for years, even when that “MVP Candidate” season led a remarkably talented team to an 8-8 record. I’ve ranted on The Fireside Chat that Michael Vick’s legendary elusiveness wouldn’t be needed if he could actually execute the offense well. I’ve gotten in endless quarrels about Kurt Warner’s Hall of Fame viability; to me a player who spent half of his career on the bench (or belonging there) has no business in the Hall. Believe you me, I’ve moaned and groaned on Twitter and elsewhere about Tim Tebow—the false quarterback prophet, whose role in the NFL will be primarily to sell jerseys.
Likewise, I still say that Barry Sanders never got his due—even as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, people are largely ignorant about just how remarkable he really is. I am completely mystified by Brett Favre being lucky to crack most people’s top ten all-time quarterback lists—when his name is at the top of the heap in every statistical category—and legendarily, he played with more heart and grit and gusto than any of them.
All of this is bad enough, but with today’s twenty-four hour sports media cycle, and the prevalence of blogs, podcasts, forums, Twitter, etc., once a thought takes root (i.e., “Vick barely beating the Lions means he’s a lock for the Pro Bowl”) it’s repeated over and over and over and expounded upon and analyzed and broken down and debated and parroted and #TT’d and #FF’d and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
Such it is with “Shoelace,” the Denard Robinson phenomenon. It’s not that Denard is not talented; he unquestionably is. He’s extremely fast, has good vision, and runs in very well in open field. Unlike last season, he has excellent running lanes thanks to a mightily improved offensive line. Also, he’s gotten much better at throwing the ball. In fact, he’d have to have done so, if for no other reason than he couldn’t have gotten any worse: in 34 dropbacks last season, Denard was sacked three times, threw four interceptions, and completed 14 passes for only 188 yards.
Clearly, though, he’s taken a big step forward—and so have his teammates, and so have his coaches. Denard’s statistical production has been simply incredible: he’s decimated several U of M single-game records, and Denard is on pace to demolish several NCAA FBS records, as well. However, he’s done this against UConn, Notre Dame, UMass, Bowling Green, and Indiana—and wasn’t uniformly incredible, as many currently believe. Even with Indiana’s doormat conference status, cracks in the Shoelace facade began to grow. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, the Wolverines had to punt three consecutive times—thanks to a Denard run that came up short, and two poorly-thrown incompletions.
Yes, the drive after that was the game-winning drive, and Denard scored the game winning touchdown. But this was Indiana; it didn’t need to be nearly as close as it was—and if Denard were truly a Dilithium-based lifeform, he wouldn’t need four bites at Indiana’s apple to get the one touchdown he needed. It’s exactly that kind of Culpepperian first-quarter awesome, fourth-quarter not-so-awesome that makes people who don’t look past the box score repeat and expound and analyze and break down and debate and hype and parrot and #TT and #FF and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
Part of the problem here is the bed that the NCAA, its conferences, and its member institutions have made—the one that we are forced to lie in. The college rankings (and postseason) have always been awarded based on number of losses: Undefeated = “National Champion”, 1 loss = “Great Bowl”, 2 losses = “Good Bowl”, etc. The pressure to reduce the number of losses has forced every team into a race for the scheduling bottom. Teams schedule tomato cans they have absolutely no intention of losing to for three, and sometimes four, nonconference games out of four—and conferences have created unbalanced schedules, bye weeks, and division splits to make sure nobody even kind-of decent faces a strong test more than two or three times a year.
The upshot of this? Nothing that happens in September really matters. The whole first month of college football is completely immaterial. Except for a preseason national title favorite losing to an FCS school (e.g., “The Horror”), there is no single loss that can’t be overcome, and likely no single win that will mean as much as people think it does (e.g., “Boise State beat VT, they are now the prohibitive favorite to win the BCS Championship, unless they lose to Oregon State”). Let me underscore that: the college football season, as it currently exists, is designed to make sure everybody looks good, especially in September. If your team doesn’t look great in September, your team is horrible—and even if your team does look great in September, that doesn’t mean it is not horrible.
In the intervening three games between Denard’s coming-out party against Notre Dame and tomorrow’s Big Chill, Michigan has done nothing other than beat teams they were nearly assured of beating—and Denard has done nothing other than continue to break long runs, be really fast and get people to repeat and expound and analyze and break down and debate and hype and parrot and #TT and #FF and OH MY GOD MAKE IT STOP.
Unfortunately, while this schedule has given Denard—and Michigan—a great platform for success and exposure, it’s also robbed them of the ability to really legitimately crow about it. Until Denard looks amazing against multiple better-than-average BCS-conference teams, doubts will continue to be cast upon his achievements. The NCAA’s schedule dilution ensures that everybody looks at least pretty good for most of the year, and it keeps fans keep buying tickets and coaches employed—but in the process, true greatness is obfuscated.