So here's AP sportswriter Joseph White's take, this morning, on the New York Giants, who, of course, won last year's Super Bowl in thrilling fashion* and are kicking major NFL ass again this season:
"The New York Giants have shoved every distraction aside, including a shooting incident involving their star receiver, to become as dominant as, say, a Chicago Bulls team with Michael Jordan. //Perhaps that's no coincidence. //At one of the first team meetings of training camp, coach Tom Coughlin discussed the 1991-92 Bulls as a team for the Giants to emulate in the bid to repeat as Super Bowl champions...."
I've said it before, but I really don't think I can say it enough, given the constant reinforcement this stuff gets in media (and in schools, and in politics, and on American Idol and The Academy Awards and SportsCenter, and almost everywhere else in our pseudo-culture): Really good teams tend to win despite any and all so-called intangibles. Really bad teams tend to lose despite any and all so-called intangibles. Then again, sometimes, for no reason that anyone can pinpoint, really good teams lose to really bad teams...again despite intangibles. (Just as, in baseball, an incredibly dominant pitcher like Mariano Rivera sometimes gives up a heartbreaking home run to a second-rate hitter. It happens, and not because Rivera was distracted or intimidated. Most pitchers aren't anywhere near as talented as "Mo," so it happens to them more often. See? Baseball explained in three sentences....) The bottom line is, if intangibles play any role in winning or losing, we have no way of knowing what that role might be. So there's not much point in talking about it. Yet that's precisely what many columnists, and almost all of the TV sports mavens, spend the bulk of their time nattering about.
The success of the 2008 New York Football Giants does not prove the value of holding preseason meetings where you invoke the Chicago Bulls. Don't you think a lot of NFL teams, if not all of them, hold such pep rallies going into a new season? Why don't they all dominate the way the Giants have?** (Oh wait, I know, I know: because they let themselves get too distracted.) What the Giants show us is that if you've got lots of talent, you probably will win, even despite problematic star players who somehow shoot themselves while out clubbing.
* For sports fans seeking an excuse to buy/read Playboy: My article on The Play dissects the Manning-to-Tyree pass (the YouTube video, above) from the unusual vantage point of all seven on-field officials; it appears in the magazine's February issue, on-sale date early January. You'll also learn a lot of stuff you didn't know about what a zebra's life is really like.
** Which again raises another point that I tried to emphasize in SHAM: In sports or any other zero-sum enterprise, how can "mental attitude" work for everyone who subscribes to it? It is flat-out impossible for all teams to rely on PMA as the sure-fire prescription for success that its disciples claim it to be.