For the Love of the Game

As you are now likely aware, the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl last Sunday. Obviously, the game had a great effect on many people: Baltimore's legions of fans; Colin Kaepernick, who placed the final nail in Alex Smith's coffin; and Ray Lewis, who goes out as a champion after 17 seasons.


There is one person, however, who is impacted by the Super Bowl more than anyone else, and it is the same guy every year the winning quarterback. People like to say that there is no position like quarterback in sports, but that is not quite true. A point guard in basketball shares the same duty of running the offense, and hockey goalies and baseball starting pitchers have the same, or greater, degree of impact over the outcome of a game, to the point that the win-loss record is a key statistic for each of those positions.


A quarterback's legacy, unlike that of other team's leaders, is significantly impacted by his team's performance. After Sunday's game, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's name grew by three words. From now on, he'll be known as Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco. In other sports, a top player is normally described as Cy Young-winning pitcher or a Vezina-winning goaltender, but in football, the first line on a quarterback's resume is whether he won a Super Bowl.


Whether this is fair or not is up for debate. Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson both won Super Bowls, but no one would argue that either was a better quarterback than Dan Marino, who did not. The excellent Bill Barnwell argues extensively on Grantland that quarterbacks are too often defined by things beyond their control, and I tend to agree.


If the Patriots had gotten defensive stops on their final possessions in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI against the New York Giants, Tom Brady would occupy a mythic place in American sports culture as a five-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback as well as the leader of the greatest team of alltime, the 2007 New England Patriots. I'm not saying that it wasn't Brady's fault that the Pats lost those games, he made mistakes too; I am simply using him as an example to show that how we view a quarterback can change drastically based on events they have nothing to do with.


The same thing happened to the winning quarterback in those games. Eli Manning deserves to be praised for engineering two Super Bowl-winning drives, but his play in nine regular seasons has been only slightly above average. Yet because he and Flacco served as quarterbacks for teams that won Super Bowls, their names now come up in the inane, never-ending "elite quarterback" debate that ultimately proves nothing.


Why do we do this? Why do we decide that quarterbacks must be judged by their team's performance in big games, while other positions and players escape the same scrutiny? I don't know for sure, but I have a theory.


American sports fans like to have clear narratives. When something happens, we like to place it in terms of what has already happened. When Peyton Manning's team loses in the playoffs, it is because Peyton Manning is a choker. As the most important player in our most popular sport, quarterbacks are a natural target for narrative-building.


The problem is that American sports, particularly football, are not conducive to narrative-building at all. NFL teams play 16 regular season games, but the champion is determined using a much smaller sample size of a 12-team, single-elimination tournament. We build narratives based off playoff results, so when the Giants and Ravens win, we draw the conclusion that their quarterbacks must be elite. Yet if the San Francisco 49ers' Kyle Williams did not muff two punts in last year's NFC Championship Game, which the Giants won in overtime, or if the Denver Broncos' Rahim Moore did not foolishly underplay Jacoby Jones in this year's divisional playoffs, which the Ravens won in double-overtime, our narratives would have changed dramatically.


The result is that we overvalue the outcome rather than the process, and try to reconcile new narratives based on small sample sizes with pre-existing ones based on larger sample sizes. If a quarterback plays well in the regular season and poorly in the postseason, he is a choker, but if a quarterback plays poorly in the regular season and well in the playoffs, he is "raising his game." In reality, what is happening is the same as what happens in the regular season good quarterbacks can have occasional bad games, just as bad quarterbacks can have occasional good games. The difference is that there is always another game next week in the regular season, which is not true in the playoffs.


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