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Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Super Bowl is fundamentally different from almost every other championship round. In the NBA, the conference semifinals lead into the conference finals; the conference finals lead into the NBA Finals. It’s a seamless, uninterrupted transition. The move from championship weekend to the Super Bowl, with its extended waiting period and neutral-site location, is far from it. Given the three-tiered AFC dominance Ravens fans have long suffered under, I think it’s fair to say the Super Bowl long felt like a party we were just never quite cool enough to get invited to.

For two weeks, everyone’s been talking about us. Without making the Super Bowl, we probably don’t get the features on how awesome Ed Reed is, on how awesome Ozzie Newsome is. And no, these aren’t first downs or defensive stops, but a two-week celebration of your team is still something worth getting excited about. But is getting to the party enough?

I wrote two weeks ago that the AFC championship means more, and I stand by that. Like nearly all Super Bowls, I really couldn’t care less about the specific opponent — that the 49ers are an exceptionally good team pretty much summarizes my opinion of them. But now that we’re here, now that we’re at the party … well, we may as well win. Not for this year, necessarily; this year is still a roaring success if we lose 37-3. I want to win this year to validate the last 10. For better or worse, the descriptor “champion” absolves a team from blame or ridicule. Past losses are suddenly just building blocks, and future losses are just losses, not moral failings. The Steelers missed the playoffs this year largely because Ben Roethlisberger threw terrible interceptions against Dallas and Cincinnati, and no one had a conniption. The Spurs had a 20-game win streak and a 2-0 conference finals lead last spring, lost four straight games, and no one noticed because LeBron James might choke again. I don’t think anyone ever accused the Ravens of losing big games because they lacked mental toughness, but there’s certainly a sense they talk a lot for a team that doesn’t beat its biggest rivals a lot. We’re on the precipice of erasing that now.

The trouble with a precipice, though, is getting back if you fail. Of course, the Ravens were on a lesser precipice last year, failed in the most agonizing fashion imaginable, and then came back to the scene to complete it. But doing the same for a Super Bowl is even more difficult — it’s a round deeper, with a few more teams to outperform. At some point, you’ve had your last chance.

We never really know when a team’s window has closed (see: every discussion about the Boston Celtics over the last four years), but even if the franchise’s window remains open — which, given the young skill position talent and front office ingenuity at our disposal, could be longer than we instinctively believe — it is obviously the “last ride” for the Ravens as we know them.

The Ravens will probably play in another Super Bowl one day, because they’re not the Browns anymore. But it probably won’t be the final game in a Ravens jersey for the two best players in franchise history; it probably won’t come after a string of two AFC championship losses and five playoff appearances in the previous six years; and it definitely won’t be the game culminating the formative years of our sports fandom.

It all boils down to a single three-hour game that will start about three hours from now. It’s exhilarating, but utterly terrifying. And all we can do is watch.

We were told things had changed. Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder – the Dan Snyder of seven head coaches and 14 quarterbacks in just 13 seasons – had mellowed out. Even Dave McKenna, the former Washington City Paper writer who penned the invaluable Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder – the Dan Snyder who subsequently sued the Washington City Paper over the article (yes, that really happened; yes, he eventually dropped the lawsuit) – became a fan.

This season, the Redskins went 10-6 and won their first NFC East title since 1999, behind star quarterback Robert Griffin III. They even pulled ahead 14-0 in the first quarter of their playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. But then, well, you know what happened. A few ineffective Griffin quarters and one gruesome fall later, the Redskins fell to Seattle, 24-14, and Griffin damaged his ACL and LCL, requiring offseason surgery.

A few points to consider here: Griffin had already sprained his LCL in a December game against the Baltimore Ravens; Griffin clearly tweaked his knee shortly before the Redskins’ second touchdown, in the first quarter, and ran gingerly afterward; Griffin is possibly the most valuable commodity in the entire NFL. Yet Redskins coach Mike Shanahan – the man to whom Snyder has turned over nearly every important football decision – left Griffin in the game until midway through the fourth quarter, when his knee gave out as he chased a snap.

The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft, which they used to take Griffin. “For the Redskins to get the equivalent value from RGIII as they spent acquiring him,” the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective wrote, “he must produce at least as much as Tom Brady.” Griffin’s health (and performance, but if he’s hurt, he certainly can’t perform) will be quite highly correlated with the long-term success of the franchise. Griffin’s even more important to the Redskins than Stephen Strasburg is to another local team, the Nationals.

The Nats caused some local consternation when they shut Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft who injured his elbow and missed the entire 2011 season, down for the season in early September, despite the team having the best record in the National League. Griffin’s injury doesn’t prove Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo correct – I, at least, think the Nationals overreacted to pitcher overuse in earlier eras and didn’t necessarily save Strasburg from further injury – but it illustrates a crucial difference between franchises: the Nationals had a clear plan for handling their young star – cut him off at about 160 innings – while the Redskins evidently let their 22-year-old phenom, bred in a culture of macho toughness, make his own health decisions, parsing “injured” and “hurt.”

Redskins team doctor James Andrews told USA Today he didn’t even get to examine Griffin before he re-entered the Ravens game. Andrews’ sideline interaction with Shanahan was later termed a miscommunication, but there shouldn’t be any miscommunications among Redskins management about Robert Griffin III. And if there are – if the team’s “handling” of Griffin only involves shuttling him into a small red shed on the Fedex Field sideline before sending the gimpy No. 2 overall pick back onto the field to run dangerous quarterback options – that ultimately falls on Snyder. Just because he’s less visibly involved doesn’t mean he’s less to blame; merely handing control over to another short-sighted megalomaniac doesn’t mean he’s changed at all.

Maryland’s move to the Big Ten has been a mostly abstract endeavor. Oh, it’s real alright, but manifested only in lengthy behind-the-scenes narratives, revenue projections, and scripted addresses from old men at podiums. We’ve talked endlessly about What The Move Means For Maryland without really feeling What The Move Means For Maryland.

But as Maryland basketball stops-and-starts through its second-to-last season in the ACC, the decision’s becoming far more tangible.

The Terps played an ACC contest in Cameron Indoor Stadium for potentially the last time Saturday, hanging tough for a half but ultimately succumbing to Duke’s inevitable 3-point barrage, 84-64. That result isn’t new – Maryland hasn’t won in Durham since 2007, and hasn’t even come particularly close. But it’s now quite possible they never will again.

That the Maryland-Duke “rivalry” – which, for local kids my age, was highlight-on-your-schedule, no-way-I’m-missing-this Ravens-Steelers before Ravens-Steelers really started getting good – has lost nearly all its significance was a major reason I favored the move. Saturday’s game had virtually no connection to the battles of yore; the only direct remnants of the Gary Williams era were the two worst players to see the court for Maryland, Pe’Shon Howard and James Padgett.

Around here, “the Duke game” really means the Duke game in College Park. It’s obviously more fun to throw bottles at Carlos Boozer’s mom or profanely taunt J.J. Redick than to watch a college basketball game on TV, and most of the rivalry’s seminal regular-season moments – 10 points in 54 seconds, Steve Blake’s steal, the ACC regular-season championship – occurred at Cole or Comcast.

As exhilarating as protecting your house is, though, it can’t match the simple satisfaction of storming someone else’s, particularly when that someone else’s is Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Opposing teams (or, for that matter, the journalists who cover the opposing team) never look as alone as they do in Cameron. Cameron personifies college basketball’s few redeeming, almost European soccer-like qualities — a rabid, intimate supporters’ section in an antiquated, historic environment. Of course, the program then goes out of its way to make all that as repulsive as possible.

“What sets us apart from the pros? What sets us apart from the rest of the world? Intercollegiate sports is really something that only the United States has. No other country has that. And our thing is based on all the right values: loyalty, honesty, tradition. The branding that you have gotten from doing that has elevated the academic institutions that those athletic programs represent. And doing things the way we’re doing it now, based on money, I think it takes away from the academic missions and the innocence that an academic institution has.”

Yeah, fuck Duke.

We’ll beat any number of teams in College Park every year, but the Terps only have one opportunity a season to win there, at the “stadium” that housed Steve Wojciechowski and Mike Dunleavy and Redick and yes I really should include a black player on this list, on the court named after that guy who talks about the “honesty” of intercollegiate athletics.

Still, since the 1996-97 season, when Duke returned from a two-year lull and by which point Williams had firmly established his brand in College Park, the Terps have won only four games in Cameron, the entire history of which can be covered in three paragraphs.

Maryland won back-to-back contests in 2000 and 2001 — a sophomore from Baltimore named Juan Dixon scored 31 points on 14-of-19 shooting, and the Terps responded to 10 points in 54 seconds by spoiling Duke’s senior night, both times scoring more than 90 points and generally being awesomely frenetic. (I have repeatedly queried Shane Battier about this loss during his impromptu Twitter ask-me-anything sessions; he has yet to respond.)

The Terps’ 2002 title team actually lost in Cameron by 21 despite holding a halftime edge, but the ’05 squad — Maryland’s first non-NCAA tournament team since 1993 — managed a 75-66 win in Durham thanks to one of those random excellent Nik Caner-Medley games (25 points on 8-of-13 shooting). Oh, and there was tricking the Cameron Crazies, which for Maryland fans that season counted as a very important moral victory.

Maryland also swept Duke in 2006-07, probably the only season since Joe Smith’s sophomore year in which the Terps were clearly the better team. The careers of many up-and-down Terps rounded into shape that year; Mike Jones put up 25 in Cameron, and Greivis Vasquez, as a freshman, came up a rebound short of a triple-double.

Vasquez, more than for his all-around, four-year brilliance, will forever be cherished in College Park for these moments, for calling Cameron “my house“. Beyond the Dixon-Baxter national championship contender squads, the Gary Williams era wasn’t really about his own great teams, but the very real possibility for a victory any time the Terps played a great team. The Blue Devils were only a .500 conference team in 2007, but there’s probably some connection between nearly registering a triple-double in that environment and Vasquez’s teams beating five top-5 teams in his career – including three wins in the ’08 and ’09 seasons, when the Terps weren’t even very good.

That’s all Maryland-Duke is really about. The Terps didn’t compete on an annual basis with the ACC’s blue bloods. Maybe, one day, they’ll consolidate the talent-rich D.C. area and compete with Indiana and Ohio State and Michigan State for Big Ten titles. But Maryland basketball’s always had visions of itself that exceed reality, dating back to Lefty Driesell’s “UCLA of the East” proclamation. It didn’t matter that we went to Duke and rarely won; it mattered that we went to Duke and thought we could. Vasquez, after all, our last great conquering general, went 1-3 in Cameron, but it’s the one that counts.

By this year, it felt like just another game. The links can’t hold strong forever. Duke is still Duke; I’m sure I could gin up some good old-fashioned hatred for Mason Plumlee if I really needed to. But the Maryland-Duke rivalry isn’t inherent – and when the rivalry isn’t inherent, it relies on shit actually happening. Yes, shit certainly happened March 3, 2010, but at this point, it’s pretty clear: 2010 was one, last glorious ride, the last time a self-made, Gary-molded team would storm the gates of the ACC’s gilded class. You can only try to recreate the past so many times.

The Big Ten move and the athletic department’s larger rebranding are pushing Maryland toward a new basketball identity. It’s rare for a school so steeped in college basketball lore to willingly reinvent itself, although Syracuse, whenever Jim Boeheim leaves, will essentially do the same in the ACC. The Terps will enter the Big Ten soon, and they will be naked. There won’t be a “Duke game” anymore; Maryland, at least until it wins something again, will have the cache of a bottom-rung program in the conference.

But at least we won’t be trying to fit a new image across an old canvas. Once we’re in the Big Ten, I think I’ll stop kvetching. Storming the court against Minnesota would be just as foolhardy as against N.C. State, but far less revolting. If Black Ops jerseys are “in” now, at least they’ll no longer defile the memory of red-clad Maryland squads that actually won big games.

The Terps have never played the Purdue Boilermakers; I couldn’t care less what we wear against them.