The Blue Eye: Politics and Football

By A.F. Cook
Updated: January 7, 2008

VIRGINIA — Anyone watching the NFL Wild Card playoffs this weekend knows this year’s contenders for the Super Bowl title are the real deal, so much so that at least one presidential candidate participating in the debates in New Hampshire had a hard time hiding the fact that he would rather have been watching football than sparring over foreign policy.

Asked by the debate moderator, pundit du jour Charlie Gibson of ABC, about his response to the Republican debate earlier in the evening, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) confessed he’d been paying more attention to the NFC contest between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins. (Obama is a Bears fan.) Obama must have been wishing he’d been on the debate committee, because whoever scheduled the Democratic debate placed the Democrats at a major disadvantage: the event came after the Republican debate, smack in the middle of the most exciting game of the week — the AFC battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars.

I could feel Obama’s pain: I was sitting in a living room packed with football and politics junkies forced to switch madly between the debate and the game, trying to catch the high points of each. (We quickly figured out which candidates were going to spout standard-issue rhetoric so we could agree on when to hit the remote.) At least one newly minted female fan in our living-room huddle was swooning over Jags coach Jack Del Rio, while another commented on the butt shots provided by network cameras. Whatever gets you into the game, I say.

When your choice is between listening to a plodding Arizona Governor Bill Richardson or a sharp-tongued Hillary Clinton and watching hard-hitting hunks of eye candy collide into each other in the name of the almighty pigskin, politics is a tough sell.

Which is why we’re talking about football here. Specifically, the first round of the playoff tournament, which featured a combination of current and next-generation black stars: two standouts at quarterback, a running back who has assumed a primary leadership role in the huddle and a defense on a mission.

Running On Time The player making the biggest news at the moment may be David Garrard, the stylish, well-spoken and persistent quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Garrard’s performance Saturday night was inconsistent — the Jags gave up an 18-point lead before bouncing back — but the way he redeemed himself was so outstanding that his counterpart on the losing side, Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, actually hung around while Garrard finished a post-game interview on the field so he could congratulate him.

The final score, 31-29 in the Jags’ favor, was the result of a see-sawing competitive advantage between the two teams: The biggest play of the game was Garrard’s 32-yard fourth-down conversion near the end of the game with the Jags trailing by one point.

I was actually wondering if Garrard was planning to run, because the element of surprise was what Jacksonville needed. And, it turns out, that’s just what Garrard did, hesitating only momentarily to throw the Steelers defense off before heading for the nearest available opening and running downfield.

Field-goal kicker Josh Scobee sealed the deal, and that was all she wrote. My home team, the New England Patriots, now face what could be their biggest challenge yet when they face the determined Jacksonville crew next weekend.

The Passion of the Quiet Soldier In San Diego, Charger running back LaDanian Tomlinson took morale matters into his own hands earlier this season when he called a team meeting without coach Norv Turner.

Whatever happened in that locker room, what we have seen from the Chargers since is the collective heart of a team whose primary focus is on reestablishing itself as a force on the field. LT & Co. made that quite clear in their 17-6 victory over a struggling Tennessee Titans team headed by QB Vince Young Sunday.

Young, still recovering from an injury, was unable to show fans his true potential. Let’s hope his recovery is complete by next season so the Titans can be all they can be.

When a Loss Gives Birth to a Winner For the NFC’s second-tier teams, defense seems to be the name of the game this year – and the New York Giants continued their post-Patriots makeover as a team whose defense is so good it makes its offense look good.

Of course, the cliché is that offense sells tickets and defense wins games. What the Giants defense did was take away the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ running game, a tactic you can be sure they will apply to their next opponent, the Dallas Cowboys and that team’s not-so-secret ground weapon, Marion Barber. The 24-14 final score was the product of an all-around team effort.

I actually think the Giants’ 38-35 loss to New England in the last game of the regular season was a “good loss,” a confidence builder for Eli Manning and the offense that came largely as a result of the groundwork laid by Michael Strahan and his colleagues on the other side of the ball.

The Giants’ defensive game vs. the Bucs was even more impressive as New York’s defense was playing with quite a few “spare parts” — players filling in for injured starters. If there is anything the Patriots have shown their fellow teams in the League, it’s that a team is truly comprised of 53 players — meaning every guy must be ready to play like a starter when called The Giants may have learned the most valuable lessons from that loss to the Pats, a game that seems to have been a character-building experience for Manning and a measure of quality for the Giants D.

The Giants I’ve seen since that thrilling game at the Meadowlands between two different visions in red, white and blue are a changed team. This Giants team is utter capable of propelling itself to the Super Bowl if the Cowboys underestimate where these Giants came from and where they believe they are going.