Saturday, December 31, 2005

I will let you down, I will make you hurt

My Empire of Dirt

Please, open the garage door before you start the car, untie yourself from the train tracks, spit the mouthful of bleach into the sink, drain the bath before you toss in any appliances, and fire that .38 into the sky, for another voice of delirium commands your attention, and like you it has absolutely no idea what has just happened. So gather round, pop the last of your 12 dollar New Year’s Eve champagne, because calamity of this caliber loves company.

I’m still not sure what the focus of this will be; who and what to be mad at specifically, and beneath which slab of defeat the solution lays. Individually, the Alamo Bowl was a fragmented disaster, patching various styles of incompetence to form a quilt held together only by the spindly threads of brief success. Brandon Harrison and Jamar Adams attacked short passing routes too aggressively; Prescott Burgess pursued ball carriers with the speed and urgency of a supermarket cashier, and yet another opposing skill player had Michigan to thank for the game-of-a-career performance he’ll describe to young kids sitting on his lap for the rest of his life. It always seems to be Michigan who’s responsible for these statistical aberrations. I’ve never heard announcers say so many “He’s a special player,” and “It’s easy to see why coaches are so excited about this guy,” type comments. Cory Ross? Brian Calhoun? Albert Young? Gary Russell? With the exception of Young, Michigan was the first major school that each of these running backs trashed. And let’s not forget how Troy Smith was permanently anointed Michael Vick Lite last year after treating Michigan the way inmates do pedophiles.

But let’s keep going with Nebraska. While the defense added some flavor over the layoff (albeit one as simple as those packets of pepper Wendy’s throws into your bag at the drive thru), the offense continued to run the same, predictably diagrammed plays series after series. It really says a lot about the confidence and potency of an offense when a play as cautious as the wide receiver screen is shut down and the passing offense immediately enters “well what the fuck do we do now?” mode. The thing about John Navarre was that you knew what you were going to get from him every game: Skateboards have ridden through dry sand with more mobility, and defensive linemen were going to deflect his passes at least three times a game, but he could get the ball down the middle of the field, and he knew how to complete passes to the sidelines. Chad Henne’s finest moments are eons past what Navarre could ever do, but there’s not nearly the same reliability. Cumulatively, they’re probably worth the same at this point, but with Navarre I knew he’d consistently be just slightly above average, and I grew content with that.

Navarre was the decent looking girl you knew would be there for you if you ever had to endure one of those long sexual droughts. Not the most attractive, but she’d let you pound her with150 pounds of virility basically whenever you wanted. Henne’s the type of girl you started dating because the first time you saw her she looked stunning and happened to wear the right bra and matching underwear (Top 5 High School Quarterback recruit in the country). Since then she uses makeup sporadically, does her hair infrequently, and only rarely wears clothing that accentuates her features (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Notre Dame). Sometimes, though, for whatever reason, she puts it all together (Ohio State, Texas) and you thank the heavens for bestowing this transcendent goddess upon you(’re football team).

There were times last year where I questioned how Henne would survive without Braylon, but I usually brushed aside his blunders in the name of inexperience, confident they’d be resolved over the summer. We’d never seen deep-balls whose altitude seemingly surpassed their length with such consistency, but we all thought those trivial discrepancies would be harnessed with a few 10-minute drills, or some VHS from the football equivalent of Tom Emansky. Yet now his flaws have proliferated, new ones emerging while the old grow more stubborn.

Last year it was as if he was absolved of any wrongdoings even before he’d taken a collegiate snap. An injury to Matt Guttierez had made him the starting quarterback possibly months before the coaches wanted to, and he was still just months removed from his career as High School Stud All American. A poor first season would only bring a more tempered outlook to his sophomore campaign (and really, we saw how passionately David Underwood rode that maxim even as his performance did everything in its power to prove otherwise). But Henne was invincible, and armed with one of the more talented offenses in the country his confidence by the middle of their eight-game winning streak must have been soaring clear through the ozone. And that’s when we saw the guy everyone couldn’t stop talking about, the drool-inducing display of physical talents and the potential that should have garnered hyperbole far beyond even Mel Kiper’s grasp.

The loss of Braylon, the 5’8’’ pacifier who allowed him to dip his toes into the water at his own pace, and all the linemen he’d want protecting him, and Henne’s ended the first half of his Michigan career with everyone wondering where the hell he’s headed. The optimist in me says he’s simply spent too much of the season worrying about being a good quarterback, forgetting how good he’d been all along. At least then, it’s something to be fixed, no matter how unattainable the repairs may seem. The pessimist says his freshman year was nothing so outstanding in the first place, and the symbiosis with the late-game brilliance he displayed in games like Michigan State did nothing besides put him above the initial bar I’d set for him, which stood just slightly taller than a saltine cracker lying on its back. How hard is it to exceed expectations when they never existed to begin with?

So this year as every Detroit Free Press feature on the tantalizing tandem of sophomores-to-be was published, the pressure facing Henne grew. This was the guy who’d lead Michigan to the program’s resurrection, we kept hearing that, and deep down we kept believing it. Then there we were three months later, watching him drop back on 2nd and never, when even arguably the most improbable play in NCAA history would have only given Michigan an excessively mediocre 8-4 record. In the episode of SportsCenter that followed the Alamo Bowl, Stuart Scott narrated the highlight of Henne’s touchdown scramble with a fittingly absurd, “He just got his own grind on for his grizzle,” which was no less baffling than the current career-arc of our downtrodden savior quarterback.

Among the typhoons of message board incriminations, few are harder to understand than those attempting to justify the Alamo Bowl loss by bandying its long-term positive effects on the program. And for the five or six traditionalists that still exist, the ones who, you know, want to win every game, let me assuage your fears: those people are lying. I don’t deny that they’ve considered its impact, or in the seconds following one defeat wish the brash punishment of another for a few moments, but if a managerial shakeup hadn’t at least been considered after the previous four losses, it’ll never be.

The changes will come, but at this point they really aren’t contingent on downgrading the level of suck from “put away fan-gear and lay low for a while” to “cut eye-holes in the brown paper bags”. I think the loss to Minnesota had already pretty much already solidified the type of embarrassment you’re looking for. And just once, I want some of these message board fans to stop writing “I’m glad Michigan lost, it serves them right” type posts one minute, only to complain when intellectual dregs like Mark May declare that Michigan is no longer an elite program. What, are you the only one allowed to point a finger at your team?

Personally, I really can’t handle that Michigan lost to a team like Nebraska. Nothing against the Huskers, but there shouldn’t have been any fathomable scenario where Michigan would not only get invited for a pre-’06 bowl, but then lose to the opponent that was chosen to get abused by them. (I don’t imagine I’ll get any arguments that Michigan and all its talent had no business playing in this game).

Now it feels like they’re the bully all the kids in school found out really wasn’t that tough after all, the one everyone decided to mess with because they knew he wouldn’t retaliate. Michigan, at least for now, really isn’t much more than Iowa with a name-brand, or in the bully’s case, a lot of rumors about kids head’s he’s stuck down the toilet and historic wedgies he’s given to third graders.

“849 wins? Attendance records? Desmond Howard? Super-sexy helmets? Who gives a shit? You guys haven’t been relevant post-September in almost a decade. Let’s punch this guy in the stomach and get all of our lunch money back.”

That’s the way it feels, and I hate it. One thing I’ve learned in just a few months writing about college football is that there are more blogs about bad teams than there are about good teams. The reason is simple: When your team is winning, you don’t have any reasons to complain, let alone begin logging your criticisms in a designated internet location. Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are more people writing about Michigan than there are any other school, and I think the thing is that we’re all getting a bit scared. Notre Dame has a coach whose 9-3 record was actually compiled with a more encouraging method than whatever rabbit Tyrone Willingham kept pulling out of his hat, Penn State’s wrinkled monarch has willed his team to the third best ranking in the country, no one can stop talking about how much Ferenz and Walker do with so little, Minnesota’s suddenly good enough to win, and If I hear how Ohio State would give Southern Cal a serious game one more time I’m going to vomit. Meanwhile, Michigan can’t seem to get off the ground before tripping over itself again, and lingering in the background is that final play of the Alamo Bowl, like some sort of assassination footage continually reminding everyone how appropriately chaotic the culmination to Michigan’s season was.

If you’re waiting for a silver lining, all I can give you is the web address to Lloyd Carr’s press conference transcript, which is sure to provide the inevitable propaganda and his blatant dismissal of the season’s countless shortcomings. Find consolation, though, knowing that all the fair-weather fans who started wearing the block M in ’97 and kept wearing it through Anthony Thomas, are probably on the other side of the “should I give this hat to Goodwill?” decision by now. And to be honest, I don’t mind; the program could use a cleansing. There’s nothing worse than the type who suddenly think they’re a part of us just because they saw Charles Woodson’s one-handed interception against Michigan State or his punt return against Ohio State. It’s like those people who claim they’re the most devout followers of Pearl Jam just because they heard “Last Kiss” on the radio. I don’t need to be represented by those kinds of people, Notre Dame can have them.

Really, it’s not so much that Michigan keeps losing and I keep watching. As Crooked Fingers said, “Love’s a fine thing to take a chance on.” And it’s true, enduring these 7-5’s make the 13-0’s so much more definitive. Yesterday I was sitting with my brother (the Ohio State one) watching the Notre Dame game, and for the past month he’d listened to the misguided masses tell him how foolish he was for expecting Ohio State to win. “God’s team had been revived. It was thanks to the supernatural. Nothing Ted Ginn could do would stop it now.” That’s the way I pictured it. He’d watched the program wither away with John Cooper at command, and last year he’d watch them tip-toe their way to the Alamo Bowl, perhaps hoping no one would recognize how far they’d fallen since 2002. And when Antonio Pittman dashed 60 yards, carrying six points, a victory, and ammunition for more insults than I could even begin to imagine, I knew when he found himself in some argument a few hours from then, he’d be completely superior to all that had opposed him. And it’d hurt even more because everyone else said it wouldn’t happen, just like it hurts even more for Michigan fans like me who thought something crazy like an 11-1 would happen.

I just wish each loss wasn’t so similar to the next, that they weren’t so shamefully unaware of how everything kept going wrong. And all I can do is throw my hands up, let out a sigh, and hope that somehow they’ll realize frustration like this isn’t wrought simply from losing, but from doing nothing about it. Turns out the name of that Crooked Fingers song is “Call to Love,” and I think the next line goes something like, “Send it back before the signal is gone.” So sitting here I wait, the rest of the barren winter equinox entrenched between me and my call to love. Waiting, pleading for a signal, I ask “Come in, Michigan…Do you read me?”