Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Power of Nostalgia, Punky/Non-Punky QBs, and the 2010 Jets

"It's incredible. If we said words back when I was playing, we'd have to stand up in front of the team and take about a one-minute berating from the coach. Now, it's coming from the coaches.''
-- CBS NFL analyst Phil Simms, on the volume coming from teams critical of other teams in football these days. (via Peter King)
I cannot blame Phil Simms for engaging in revisionist history. I do it. We all do it. We turn back to the events of some bygone era in order to proclaim that the modern world has been turned on its ear. This kind of nostalgic thinking is what drives our culture, and our politics, and our national dialogue; it is what defines us as Americans. But in this case, Phil Simms is clearly blinded by idealism. In this case, Phil Simms is simply ignoring the fact that the hodgepodge of braggadocio and poppycock that comes screaming like a scud missile out of Rex Ryan's id was actually born in the era when Simms himself was an All-Pro quarterback.

On the surface, nothing about the 2010 Jets is ground-breaking. You could argue that self-aggrandizement in sports was born with Babe Ruth, or with Ali, or with Namath...or you could argue, as I would, that the modern formula was perfected twenty-five years ago, when the 1985 Bears streaked onto the cultural landscape, rapping cacophonous rhymes about the Super Bowl before the playoffs had even begun. Much of that was driven by a raucous and untamed locker room--and, I have argued, by a quarterback who didn't care much for the social mores of his position--but it wasn't like the coaches were innocents in this drama. Forget Bart Scott's histrionic WWE lunacy: At one point, you may recall the Packers took out a hitlist on the Bears. Rex Ryan's father was a master of the psychological screw-job, and Simms' own coach was one of the most cruel and Machiavellian figures in football history.
So, on a basic level, Simms is wrong. And yet in a strange way, he still seems kind of right.
There's something about the way the Jets carry themselves that does seem unprecedented. They're messy; they're all tangled up in tabloid culture in ways that even that '85 Bears team never really was. If the Bears were the cultural equivalent of Eddie Murphy, the Jets seem more like Joan Rivers. Things just move way faster now, and that's part of it: The acceleration of media in the time between the '85 Bears and the 2010 Jets is about a hundred times what it was in the era between Super Bowl III and Super Bowl XX. But there's something else going on here, too: Just as Jim McMahon did with his hero Joe Willie Namath, the Jets are repurposing their influences. The Bears were more like a dysfunctional family: The defensive coordinator hated the offensive coordinator, the offense hated the defense, and they channeled all this negative energy against their opponents. The Jets are more like a cabal of obnoxious bloggers: They are immature and playfully narcissistic and intermittently entertaining. They say what they think without processing it; they act as if they are more talented (and more influential) than they actually are. They are very much of a piece with their era, which is why Phil Simms' astonishment, while factually incorrect, is emotionally accurate.

It's funny: I liked the Jets when I watched them on Hard Knocks. I liked them in the abstract, as a team that seemed determined to break the mold, to cast away the stereotypes of football coaches as crusty authority figures and football players as soulless automatons. I think Rex Ryan is a charismatic goofball, and part of me truly wants him to succeed. But I can't bring myself to actually root for them on Sundays, and I don't know why. The only thing I can think of is that I'm a little bit like Phil Simms myself, that somehow I'm so wrapped up in my own nostalgia that I would prefer not to acknowledge that the world I grew up in is not exactly the same as I remember it to be.

(Photo: AP)

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