Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cinderella, Where Art Thou?

If memory serves, I earned a solid B in Psychology 101 my freshman year of college. PSY101 was one of those mandatory classes that just about every undergraduate student needed to take, regardless of whether you were studying graphic design or intelligent design. The lecture hall seated you and your 800 closest friends and inevitably started before 10:00AM, which in college hours is roughly equivalent to the crack of dawn.

Why do I bother reliving those gray-sky Syracuse mornings with you? It is because through the early morning flurries, and thanks to numerous large French vanilla coffees from Dunkin Donuts, I managed to pick up a few basic principles on the subject that allow me to understand what causes such Madness each and every March (and what the NFL could do to ensure a Jubilant, or maybe just Jovial January).

The answer? Three words: The Underdog Effect.
Proof? Three more words: Dewey Defeats Truman.

What am I talking about? The concept that in any competition, whether it be for a spot in the Sweet 16 or a seat in the Oval Office, there is a tendency for people to shift their support in favor of the perceived loser. It’s why we remember Jim Valvano and Valparaiso. It’s why Wally Szerbiak was drafted in the first round and why you claimed to live in the same general area of George Mason last spring. Historians will also tell you its why Truman won re-election in 1948 as Democrats across the country, assuming Dewey was winning big (the Chicago Tribune famously agreed), came out in droves in the final hours of voting to return him to office.

As the Truman example shows, America will inevitably pull for the underdog. The fabric of our country is built on the notion of overcoming the odds to be successful. Which is why we root for the 13-seeds come March and why the first four days of the Tournament are so special – because of the chance that a 13-seed will still be playing the following week. And that hope, that chance, that possibility is what the NFL might need one day.

The so-called parity in the league has rid the sport of dynasty teams, and in effect, teams of destiny. If a team earning a bye has a record equal, or perhaps worse than a team who is designated a Wild Card, when the two teams meet in the playoffs, is it really an upset if the visiting team wins? Would there be a true favorite? (i.e. more than the 3 points odds makers typically assign to a home team)

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens were technically underdogs heading into Oakland for the AFC Championship Game, but when they emerged victorious, was it such a surprise? The 2006 Ravens were favored against the visiting Indianapolis Colts in the second round of the Playoffs, but given the fact that Indy now owns a Lombardi Trophy, was it considered an upset to see the highest rated quarterback in the league lead his team to victory?

Ironically, the NFL’s last true ‘Goliath’ and the most recent ‘David’ were probably both from New England. The 2001 Patriots, led by an unproven backup QB named Tom, did serve as a true underdog; while the 2004 Patriots, led by a two-time Super Bowl MVP named Brady, managed to play the role of Super Power in beating T.O. and the Eagles (hardly a ‘David’).

So how do you ensure more fairy-tale magic, the likes of which we see in March, to make more appearances in January? Play-in games? Playoff expansion? Let Boise State play the Super Bowl Champion? Did you know they’re making a documentary on “The Game”. No matter what the method, I think it could only enhance the most popular sport in the country and allow the NFL to remain atop its pedestal. The sport will always produce Champions, but sometimes, sports fans are also looking for a Cinderella. Time to strap on those glass slippers. Click-Clack.

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