Winning, With Style!

I have a love-hate relationship with football.

On one hand, I'm in love with the beauty of the game: an indefensible pass, a perfectly-timed running play that opens a hole a mile wide, a return for a touchdown, and a drive-ending open-field tackle can all stop my heart and steal my breath like a kiss from the woman I love.

But more than those moments of instant gratification, I'm enamored with the way football has evolved into a form of high stakes chess. Offenses and defenses alike spend every moment of preparation figuring out how to come up with new ways to disguise their true intentions and to attack their opponents' weaknesses.

On offense, the best WRs run routes so precise and consistent, you can't tell where they are going until it's too late. Lineman work on their technique, positioning, and stance so that opposing defenses can't read run or pass before the snap. And QBs utilize play-action to create the tiniest bit of separation for their receivers.

On the other side of the ball, defenses have a multitude of tricks designed to confuse the offense. Pre-snap motion, used to hide where the rush is coming from, has become popular in recent years. 3-4 defenses load up on versatile LBs, allowing the pressure to come from a random point on any given play. And look at the Colts this year: fielding a defense with no true SS or FS, giving Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry the ability to rotate from play-to-play, not allowing the defense to key in on one specific player.

And don't get me started on Advanced Stats! From, to PFF, to QBR, to Advanced NFL Stats (the win probability guy!), we are truly in a golden age of football stats and information.

But like every love-hate relationship, there is some hate to go with all of that love.

And so every time a coach, player, announcer or fan starts talking about "heart", "determination", "clutch", "the will to win", heck, let's throw "karma" in here, for good measure, I cringe and sigh.

I believe those words transform the beautiful sport of football to something else, something more. And something less. Each of those words – and the ones not listed, I'm sure I missed many – paint football as a romanticized picture, an epic struggle waged by two teams of superheroes.

In my mind, those phrases rob football of its true beauty by eliminating the existence of good and bad performances, of great plays and mistakes. Instead, every outcome is boiled down to "WHO WANTED IT MORE!"  As an example: Peyton Manning only has one Super Bowl ring because he's not clutch, because he didn't want it enough, not because Raheem Moore made a mistake, or a coach called a bad timeout, or, heck, even because the opposing team did something amazing.

And so it was especially painful when one of my favorite players of all time, Robert Mathis, tweeted the following:

I know the old blowouts and style point wins were all the rage in Old Regime but wins are wins & we wont apologize for a hard fought "W".

This tweet hurts for a couple of reasons.

First, I was one of the people who criticized the Colts victory over the Oakland Raiders. At no point in my analysis – written, spoken, or thought – did the concept of style points enter my brain. Sure, I would have preferred a blowout, but so would Robert Mathis and every fan who retweeted him. And if they tell you otherwise, they are liars. Or Raiders fans. Or both.
I believe that we can learn a lot from every game. I subscribed to the belief that the Colts' 2012 success in one-score games was unsustainable, and if they hope to have a successful – making the playoffs or better – 2013 season, they are going to have to learn to put teams away, rather than allowing inferior teams to hang around, inviting nail-biting finishes.  The Colts defense isn't good enough to get a stop 90% of the time. And Andrew Luck is human. Eventually, one of these butt-saving drives is going to fall short.
I also believe in the notion that a big win over a bad team tells us more about our club's long-term prospects than a close win over a good team. If everything we believe about the Raiders is true – that they are one of the worst teams in the league, that their offense is a mess, and their defense is old and rather talentless – then the Colts win on Sunday, while still a GREAT WIN was also cause for caution.
I believe that the Colts have enough talent to field a top-5 offense this year. I believe they could win 10+ games on the strength of Andrew Luck alone. But if the philosophy I saw Sunday is the team's season-long strategy, they will be, in my mind, hurting their chances at having the best-possible season.
This is not me hating a win because it wasn't pretty. This is not me hating a win because it wasn't a blowout.

And STYLE POINTS? I honestly don't know where the phrase "style points" originated in the NFL vernacular, but it seems like a phrase tossed about by those who romanticize the sport in an effort to discredit those who prefer to look beyond mere wins and losses.

The second reason Mr. Mathis' tweet hurts is actually much-more personal.
Blowouts and style points weren't "all the rage" in the "Old Regime." Winning – the "Old Regime" broke multiple records pertaining to wins – was "all the rage" to the Old Regime. That regime realized that the best way to win football games was to score more points than the opposition, and the set out to build a team capable of doing that a record number of times.
Somewhere along the way, that "Old Regime" became a dirty word for the Colts (the team) and their fans. Out went the Tampa-2, in came the 3-4. Out went the uber passing offense, in came the power running game. Out went building through the draft, in came a love affair with trades and free agency spending sprees.
Newsflash: there was nothing wrong with how the "Old Regime" went about doing business. If you feel otherwise, you're wrong.

And, for the record, that style of scoring a lot of points, of putting enormous pressure on the opposition, it made Robert Mathis a very very rich man, because it afforded him and his Partner in Sacks, Dwight Freeney, the opportunity to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback with impunity.

This isn't to take away from Robert Mathis – he's a great player. He was one of, if not the best players on last year's defense, and his veteran leadership is greatly needed on a team with so many rookies. And, as I mentioned, he's one my personal favorites.

But Mathis, the Colts, Jim Irsay, and the fans, need to understand that the "Old Regime" paved the road for today's NFL. It gave the blueprint for how to win.
Baltimore has always had a tough defense and a good running game, but it wasn't until Joe Flacco dominated – after the defense got old and the running game took a back seat – that they won.
While the Giants are thought of as a defense and running team, they were 4th in DVOA in passing in 2011.
The Packers, 2010's champions, rarely bother pretending to have a running game.
The Steelers, the poster children for RUN THE BALL, won their 6th championship after it became Ben Roethlisberger's team.
The Saints? Should I even bother?
The list goes on: Passing is king, and with the way the rules continue to stack the deck against opposing defenses, there is no end to its reign in sight.
This isn't, however, supposed to be another indictment on "run the ball, stop the run."  What it is, is a plea:
You can enjoy Andrew Luck, Chuck Pagano, et al without belittling those who came before them.

They didn't win the right way. They didn't win with style points.They just won.

That's all that matters, right?