“Nothing less than a world championship is acceptable to our team.” This is a declaration constantly trotted out by sports organizations, whether in training camp or on the eve of a championship game, and it’s utter bollocks.
I’m thinking about the “Nothing less than” trope because today, in the wake of the New York Jets’ playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’ve been hearing a lot of an equally dubious trope: “Same old Jets.” Same old? This team, with a youngish coach and a core of young players, has made it to two consecutive conference championship games! They’ll probably be a good team for several years to come. And that is, for a fan, a pretty great set of circumstances.
I’m not even a Jets fan; my football team is the Giants, who finished 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs. If I may make an unfashionable admission, I enjoyed the Giants’ past season (in that masochistic, pain-as-joy way endemic to diehard sports fandom) because the Giants had a winning record and were in the playoff hunt until the end. That’s really what is acceptable to me. If I had a chance to rewrite the “Nothing less than” aphorism, I would rewrite it as “Nothing less than a team that is solid year in and year out, and is in the playoff hunt until late in the regular season, is acceptable.” What’s more, I have endured Giants teams that have had terrible seasons of double-digit losses, yet still I’ve returned to my seats in the Meadowlands when the next season rolled around. So if I’m being truthful, I must make the still-more-unfashionable admission that even a losing team, while dreary and soul-crushing and self-worth-abnegating, is kind of acceptable.
It’s understandable why coaches like the Jets’ Rex Ryan and owners like the Yankees’ Steinbrenners deploy the “Nothing less than” formulation, since it stokes the fans’ hopes and the players’ self-belief. But if you’re a true sports fan, you have to disengage from this all-or-nothing approach, which, in most years, will lead to bitter disappointment. (And, in the Wrigleyville neighborhood of Chicago, to nihilistic despair.) The most apt summation of true fan bliss I ever heard came from John Madden, back when he was still calling NFL games on Sunday afternoons for Fox. I can’t recall which game it was or even which season it was, but it was around Thanksgiving time, and it was a close game between two NFC conference rivals. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Madden said in that unforced merry way of his. “Late November, it’s gettin’ cold, playoff spots on the line.”
My own favorite part of any NFL season is this “Madden period,” late November to early December, when enough of the season has unfolded to shake out the awful teams, but still, there remain many teams in the hunt and many games that matter. Maybe it’s because my early years of Giants fandom were defined by truly bad teams—from age 7 to age 14, they were a losing team, with double-digit losses in all but two of those eight seasons—but for my team to still be standing in that late-autumnal Madden period is, really, all I ever hope for. Playoff berths, playoff wins, Super Bowl championships: the rest is gravy.