22 December 2011

The Evolution of a Rivalry

The first time I can really remember feeling palpable disdain for the Atlanta Falcons was in late 1991.

By this time in my life, I fancied myself a seasoned football acolyte and a full-fledged Who Dat wholly engaged in the Saints' first winning regime under Jim Mora.

While hitherto in the mid '80s I technically understood the 'assignment' of rivalry with Atlanta, I never felt fully emotionally invested in it until the Saints were bounced from the playoffs by a team that I--at that specific time--perceived as a weak, lucky-to-be-there underling.


Pat Swilling was the defensive player of the year. The Saints had enjoyed one of their finer seasons, finally supplanting the Montana-led 49ers in the geographically-liberal NFC West. And the Superdome was home to a wild card game against the Falcons that would surely set the stage for the Saints' first run at a Super Bowl.

At the time, it seemed very possible with the league's best defense and all.

But then the Falcons came into the Dome and put an end to all that hope. Killers of dreams, those Falcons. When you're 16 years old, that kind of stuff leaves a mark, as silly as it might seem.

Not only did it hurt to realize that postseason glory would again evade the tenuous grasp of the Saints' franchise, but to have it come at the hands of the Falcons? After the Saints had finally conquered the 49ers in the division? And in the Dome?

It was our turn, not Atlanta's.

From that day forward, the rivalry really meant something to me.

The Saints went on to lose ten in a row to Atlanta in the mid-to-late '90s, and the Falcons' appearance in the the Super Bowl after the '98 season further cemented the Falcons' dominance in the rivalry.

But then Eugene Robinson--he, the 1998 winner of the Bart Starr Award for "high moral character" on the eve of his team's Super Bowl appearance--moronically and comically sank any chance those Falcons had against the Elway-led Broncos when he got busted for trying to get a $40 blow job from some random hooker the night before the big game.

Not only was Robinson dumb, but he was cheap. Take that, Atlanta!

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You have to understand that "hating" another team in the context of sports rivalries isn't the same kind of hate reserved for despots, rapists, Wall Street bankers, and the Jerry Sandusky's of the world. It's in the limits of language. It's more of a shorthand method for saying "f*ck you, I hope you lose, my wellbeing for the next week is almost completely dependent on the outcome of this game." It's not in wishing physical or long-lasting emotional harm upon someone.

Is it juvenile, myopic, and kind of weird? Of course it is. But then we wouldn't be Oxford-defined fanatics if this weren't the case. It does matter even though it probably shouldn't.

Would Saints' fans truly have wanted to play any other team on 9/25/06? Could it have been any more poetically righteous than to paste the Falcons on national TV post-Katrina? Why I think not.

These are the indelible brushstrokes on a masterfully-layered canvas of rivalry that continues to provide meaning. And these might have been the most beautiful strokes of all. It heightened the appreciation and perfection of the moment.

The Saints have now won 9 of the last 11 vs Atlanta in the modern era, with a shiny Lombardi trophy to boot. Atlanta with all its perceived superiorities--economically prosperous, classically Southern, geographically relevant--is feeling the full brunt of the rivalry's inferiority. Wouldn't you feel that way if the once $100-million-dollar face of your franchise went to federal prison for murdering puppies? That's gotta leave a mark.

I mean, the Falcons overreacted so badly after last year's postseason flameout as the #1 seed in the NFC that they essentially traded their entire draft for a WR. Panic much?

Would you be reassured by having an adult male with this haircut and accompanying to-catch-a-predator 'stache running your franchise? Or would you feel uneasy, insecure, and a little bit awkward? Can you see why it's so easy to ridicule the Falcons?

And now the Falcons come calling on Monday in the Superest of Domes with the Saints poised to clinch the division and Brees standing on the precipice of NFL history. Are you shitting me? The day after Christmas? On a nationally-televised Monday night game?

The only way this could be scripted any better is if the Saints win by 30 points and Matt Ryan is spotted crying on the sidelines. Now that would be proper.

I'd love to be all stoic and mature and dismissive about the importance of beating the Falcons. But I can't be, so I won't.

This is not business; it's personal.

That's just the way it is. That's why sports rivalries matter. Because they are personal. They're not rooted in cold, dispassionate transactionality. You don't have to like it or understand it. You just have to accept that's how it is.

On Monday night, it will be highly personal. And that's why we'll all be going crazy, having fun, and letting our hearts dangle on our sleeves. It couldn't be any other way.

This year, let's hope that Christmas comes a little late for Who Dats everywhere.

2 comments:

  1. To clarify any potential discrepancies, I altered the title of this post after I discovered another article (on the same topic) that used the same title, but was published prior to this post.

    It was a coincidental mistake that I wanted to provide full disclosure of.

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  2. As I read this post, the afternoon after the Falcon game, secure in its aftermath, your 30-point win wish was prescient. Keep up the good vibes.

    Dad

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