It has been suggested that Slippery Rock College made it into the nation’s consciousness decades ago when a sportswriter wrote a column demonstrating the folly of the notion that beating the top team should make you the top team. It seems that season that someone like Auburn had beaten someone like Alabama. But someone like Ole Miss had beaten Auburn. And someone like Fresno State had beaten Ole Miss. Someone like Mount Union had beaten Fresno State and Slippery Rock had beaten Mount Union. QED, the writer argued, Slippery Rock should be the top rated team in the nation. Except it’s not so of course.
Perhaps because of the fact that the NFL is the only major sports league to have a single elimination playoff system, it’s not true that the best team always wins. Which answers the question as to how our Steelers could lose to the lowly Raiders, yet defeat the mighty Pats. It might even explain how our Steelers lost to the Saints. Yes, they have the better record. Yes, they won the game. But I’m not convinced they’re the better team. Football is played on turf, not on paper. It may be the ubiquity of sports books, or the mirage of complete news coverage and punditry, but we seem to think it is an easy thing to know who will win which games. But it’s not.
Imagine a game called Heavy. The object of the game is for your 22 heaviest players to weigh more than the other team’s 22 heaviest players. The game action consists of each team mounting a giant scale. The team that weighs the most wins. In such a game you’d want heavy guys. Your “practices” would consist of sitting around drinking sausage gravy shakes and eating twinkies. Your scouts would check out hot dog eating contests at county fairs. The best coaches would be the ones who could coax their players to keep eating. But game day will have no drama, no mystery. No one will make the key play, because the only play is getting on the scale. If you could weigh all 44 “players” immediately before the actual weigh in, you’d know the winner, for certain. If the Pittsburgh Porkers weighed less than the Oakland Overeaters, they’d lose. If they weighed more than the New England Noshers, they’d win, even if the Noshers were led by the FOAT, the fattest of all time.
That’s not how football works. The NFL is an “any given Sunday” league. Yes, over the long haul talent and good leadership will out. But the game has too many variables to predict accurately each and every game. It has been said that the greatest Steeler team was the 1976 team. Sandwiched between two Super Bowls before and two after (and the non-Super Bowl 1977 team) this team didn’t even play in the Super Bowl but lost to Oakland in the AFC Championship game. We rightly point out that both Franco and Rocky were injured that game. What we miss is that this “greatest Steeler team ever” started out their season 1-4, before rattling off 9 victories.
All of which should remind us that there are reasons they play the game. While the math has taken our future out of our hands, that doesn’t mean the future is necessarily known. The Browns could beat the Ravens. Stranger things have happened. All that’s left is the nebulous reality that we don’t know what will happen. Let’s play the games. Let’s win the games, not because it’s inevitable, but because it’s not. And let’s go get #7 for #7.