Tuesday, December 22, 2020

NFL AP Poll: Week Sixteen

With only two weeks left in the regular season, the AP's top 10 for the NFL looks like this:

1.  Kansas City:  13-1
2.  Buffalo:  11-3
3.  Green Bay:  11-3
4.  New Orleans: 10-4
5.  Tennessee:  10-4
6.  Seattle:  10-4
7.  Indianapolis:  10-4
8.  Cleveland:  10-4
9.  Baltimore:  9-5
10.  Pittsburgh:  11-3

The Dolphins (9-5) are number 13.  The Washington Football Team (6-8) is number 16.  Both teams have a chance to make the playoffs.  The last season in which both Miami and Washington made the playoffs was 1999.

The Game of the Week will be the Sunday Night game, featuring the # 3 Packers hosting the # 5 Titans.  That's a great test for both teams.  On Sunday afternoon, the suddenly struggling #10 Steelers will try to right the ship against the # 7 Colts in what will always feel like an AFC Playoff game to me.  Those are the only games this week featuring two top-10 teams.

When I was a kid, I was enamored of offense in all sports -- I wanted to see long touchdown runs, homers, and lots of jump shots.  As I grew older, I learned that defense is actually important -- indeed, some people think that defense wins championships.  And if you ever watched teams coached by John Thompson and Bobby Knight, you could see their point.

I was never a big fan of defense, even when I recognized its importance.  And I generally preferred risk-taking, gambling sorts of defenses -- like Buddy Ryan's Bears or Rick Pitino's full-court press at UK.  But again, as time went on, I came to realize that teams that don't make mistakes -- like Joe Gibbs's Redskins or Dean Smith's Tar Heels -- can usually beat gamblers.

But now, as I head toward the last phase of my life, I can see that my original instincts weren't so bad after all.  The Golden State Warriors dominated the NBA with a high-flying offense, and Bill Belichick is finding life pretty lonely without Tom Brady.  The Chiefs have been the best team in football for the last two years, and this fact has nothing to do with their offense, and everything to do with the fact that their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, is playing the game of football at a level I have never seen.  Meanwhile, at the college level Nick Saban -- who spent most of his career as a defensive specialist -- has accepted the fact that some games can only be won by outscoring the other side.

A few years ago, I read one of John Wooden's books.  Wooden had a very interesting take on this issue.  Of course, he knew all about great defense -- he had seen how Bill Russell and the University of San Francisco won back-to-back titles in the mid-1950's.  But he preferred an upbeat, offense-oriented system -- with, of course, the ability to press on defense.  And he specifically said that part of his reasoning was that this type of system was more fun for the players and the fans.  It's hard to imagine Bobby Knight doing anything on the grounds that it would be more fun for the players and the fans.  But of course, it's hard to imagine Bobby Knight convincing Bill Walton or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play on his team.

Vince Lombardi is also interesting on this point.  Lombardi is the very symbol of a hard-nosed disciplinarian.  But he spent his whole career coaching the offense -- in "Run to Daylight," he spends almost no time thinking about the defensive side of the ball.  So it's a false dichotomy to say that putting offense first is somehow less "sound" than focusing on the defense.

Anyway, the point is that as with many things in my life, I find that in my old age I am returning to the faith of my youth.  As Wordsworth wrote, the child is father to the man.  And I think my childhood instincts -- while incomplete -- were fundamentally sound.  It is true that success requires self-control, and that man must always battle against the desire to backslide.  Thus, a strong and effective defense -- some way of making sure that you aren't overwhelmed by errors and mistakes -- is vital to any endeavor.  But it's also true, and even more true, that creation is the greatest miracle of all, and that it's harder to make something happen than it is to block something from happening.  So that if you want to reach the highest levels of success, you can't just play defense -- you have to find a way to put points on the board.