Monday, December 19, 2011

Magic Before Tebow's Time

As a football fan, I have no problem with Tim Tebow.

I don’t care that he can’t stand stationary in the pocket and toss a fluid downfield pass like Aaron Rodgers. I don’t care that he can’t methodically pick apart a defense like Tom Brady, and I’m not concerned that he doesn’t robotically advance through his target checks like Drew Brees. It doesn’t bother me that he’s running the Denver offense like Major Harris ran West Virginia’s Mountaineers in the late eighties; it doesn’t irk me that he’s riding a hot running back, defense and kicker to big-time exposure and success. And finally, I couldn’t care less that he exhibits any sort of spirituality on or off the field of play.

What bothers me as an educated sports fan is the fanfare surrounding him. Televised fans, newspaper writers and football analysts are treating Tebow’s unorthodox rise to power like it’s the first of its kind in the NFL. ESPN’s exhaustive, salivating, quasi-Access Hollywood coverage of Tebow’s success has been shoveled at viewers in tunnel-vision style, totally ignoring any historical precedent in order to package the Denver quarterback’s story as one-of-a-kind. A highly-touted college talent with a style not compatible with professional football somehow crack’s a team’s starting line-up and summons his rabid desire and moxie to supposedly unquantifiable success? We've been led to believe that such an occurrence is as likely to happen as the discovery of a unicorn or Bigfoot.

But it has happened, right inside the Buffalo stadium where Tim will be Tebowing this Christmas Eve. If you spent any time around Western New York in 1998, amid the height one Douglas Richard Flutie’s reign, you know this to be true.

Before Tebowmania, there was Flutiemania, complete with charitable sugar cereals, glorious mullets and inventive jump-passes. There were crazy finishes, unexplainable statistical gems, and even a high-profile (and absolutely crooked) loss to the Patriots—all without today’s intense Internet coverage or the omnipresent commentary of 24-hour news networks. How the national media outlets (aside from the Boston Herald's NFL Notes mention last Sunday) have largely ignored their overwhelming performance and circumstantial similarities is either hilariously egregious or hilariously short-sighted; it was only 13 seasons ago that Flutie entered Buffalo’s backfield to incite Van Miller-commentated fandemonium. For whatever reason, Tebow’s rise has been featured as an awe-inspiring development, one the sport, the world and the universe has never seen the likes of.

This simply isn’t the case. We've seen this before. Consider the following:

General Reaction

When Tebow was drafted late in the first round of 2010 by the Broncos—a franchise still looking for the heir-apparent to retired legend John Elway—the move was met by overwhelming national and local skepticism. Fans and critics alike recognized the Heisman-winner and two-time BCS champion to be an absolute college superstar, but a questionable (at best) professional product. Training combine favorites like throwing motion, pocket presence and arm strength all seemed to blur the significant accomplishments and intangibles of the Florida product. Plus, the Broncos had a proven starter in Kyle Orton, which put Tebow securely in the passenger seat. Less than two seasons and a relocated Orton later, we’ve all seen how this hierarchy sorted itself out.

When the Bills picked up fellow Heisman-winner Flutie from the Canadian Football League in 1998, it was an intriguing move, but one met with absolute confusion by Buffalo locals. After Jim Kelly’s successor Todd Collins donned Jack Kemp's no. 15 for one forgettable season as a starter, the Bills front office punched the panic button. Enter the 36-year-old Flutie, who’d spent the last eight years rewriting the CFL’s offensive record books. During his Northern tour, he earned six league MVP awards, three Grey Cups, and one lovingly eponymous song by Canadian folk rock weirdos Moxy Fruvous—all while throwing for an insane 41,355 yards.

What did this mean to Buffalonians? Not a whole lot. The last time Bills fans saw Flutie in the NFL, he was with the Patriots, running for his life from Bruce Smith and throwing for two (2) touchdowns over five games of the 1989 season. Still, Buffalo needed some draw, some buzz-worthy catalyst to ease the fans and franchise’s transition away from Kelly’s departure. And, in a small market where corporate dollars aren’t abundant, they needed to solidify their economic viability in the region by extending their franchise grasp over the border. With this understood, tossing a helmet to the Toronto Argonauts legend seemed to make plenty of sense.

After the Bills threw a $25-million multi-year contract at the prototypical (albeit unproven) Rob Johnson later that offseason, it appeared Flutie would be holding that helmet for the foreseeable future. But, when Johnson proved to be as durable as a wet paper bag, Flutie’s sideline days in Buffalo were replaced with an eventual on-field circus


Tebow’s size is often questioned not because he’s too small, but because he’s not built like a quarterback. At a stout 6-3, 240, the guy’s built like a halfback-fullback hybrid, one who’s more equipped to plow through linebackers then float passes over safeties.

In Flutie’s case, he would’ve flattened your mother for an extra two inches of height. Listed at a generous 5-10 and 180, he was barely suited to check bags at the Ralph Wilson Stadium gates let alone star as quarterback inside them. It was a supposed handicap he maneuvered around in a variety of ways, whether regularly rifling jump-passes over defensive ends or using gaps in his offensive line’s blocking schemes to sidearm passes to backs and receivers. And, through his underdog resourcefulness, he connected with a fan base and city forever wary of being told they’re too small or simply not good enough.

Unorthodox Play

Tebow has fascinated legions of people by running the option, scrambling for time or tanking through the early stages of most of his professional appearances. But, however unorthodox by professional standards, the guy knows what to do to pull things through; he knows how to revert to simplicity and summon a time when we were all kids, playing tackle football behind high schools or near playgrounds. His passes or runs may not be pretty, but they all go forward when they need to.

Find video of Flutie through that ’98 season and you’ll see broken plays, ad-libbed laterals and stunted Hail Marys, ones reminiscent of his epic Boston College toss back in ’84. In maybe his most famous performance of that season, he followed a 38-yard sideline dart to Eric Moulds with a one-yard naked bootleg on fourth-and-goal in the game's final 15 seconds to beat the previously unbeaten Jacksonville Jaguars. The day’s outcome coined the term, “Flutie Magic,” which came to define any goofy way Flutie proceeded to pull out games or scores—no matter how unorthodox his methods.

“Winner” Label

With Tebow’s 7-2 run this season, he’s been labeled “a winner,” a description often assigned to guys whose success escapes easy definition. The Broncos were a terrible 1-4 when he took the wheel, reeling and nowhere near the playoff picture. Now, they’re at the top of the AFC West, ending a six-game win streak with a 41-23 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. At the national level, nearly all the team’s success has been simply attributed to Tebow somehow willing this team to dramatic win after dramatic win. Have his late game heroics been impressive? Sure. But, easily buried in his engineered endings has been Matt Prater’s three game-winning kicks, the Broncos opportunistic defense, or their offense’s NFL-leading rushing attack (163 yards-a-game).

Still, despite this trio of accompaniments compensating for Tebow’s putrid 124 yards-a-game passing average, Timmy’s getting the bulk of the credit. He’s the one on ESPN; he’s the one on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not much was different with lil’ Dougie.

Though he was barely breaking the 200-yard passing mark in most of his ’98 starts, he was 8-4 in games he finished for a team that started 0-3. Fans would forget the mediocre numbers amid the exciting scrambles and creative tosses; they’d ignore the stats and enjoy the wins. But, while eventual NFL Comeback Player of the Year Flutie was at the forefront of the success—the face of the franchise on Sports Illustrated and Everybody Loves Raymond-featured Flutie Flakes—his teammates were putting up the supporting numbers to drive them forward. The ’98 Bills were ranked third in takeaway/giveaway differential, sixth in total yards allowed, and had a 1,000-yard rusher (when it still meant something) in Antowain Smith. Eric Moulds also turned in a breakout season when teamed with Flutie, as he snagged 67 catches for 1,368 yards.

All these attributes helped the Bills win, and the victories classified Flutie as a winner. Well, the victories and street-legal Flutie magic.

Christmas Habits

Tim Tebow accepts Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. He’s very outspoken on this matter, and everybody knows it—but why does anyone care? Athletics and religion have been linked since the first parochial school joined Christian teaching with halfback sweeps and baseline jumpers. Players and coaches join hands at midfield to say a postgame prayer following every NFL game in every American city. After games, players regularly thank or credit God and Jesus in front of video cameras and microphones, and have done so for decades. (Kurt Warner did it regularly through two MVP seasons and one Super Bowl title with St. Louis.) Why is Tebow’s effusive profession of faith such a big deal? In a violent sport played in a country founded on religious freedom, a guy should be able to thank whoever he pleases after he survives three hours of said violent sport. Pro football should be so lucky to replace its various drug and legal scandals with players addicted to biblical verses and missionary work—especially at Christmastime.

As for Flutie, he wasn’t known for talking about his spirituality, but did attend local Catholic services in 1998. Why do I know this? Because the entire Flutie family sat behind me on that season’s Christmas Eve. His rebellious mullet and stone-cold leather duster inside St. Mary of the Lake were only overshadowed by the baby in the manger—and not by much.

* * * * * * *

If the two players’ similarities are statistically foretelling for Tebow, then he should be itching for the playoffs. In Flutie’s only playoff appearance in a Buffalo uniform, he shook off uneven regular season passing performances to scorch the Dolphins secondary for 360 yards and one long touchdown pass to Moulds. Though it was in a losing effort, those numbers still left analysts baffled. How could someone so atypical of the prototypical quarterback find so much success in a game built to magnify his shortcomings? How could he defy boundaries formed and solidified over decades? And, in doing so, how is he able to connect so succinctly and popularly with the modern sports fan?

In first Flutie and now Tebow, fans have rallied behind a guy ramming the football down the throat of convention; they’ve reveled in watching a player rebel against their supposed limitations. People deal with parents and bosses and coworkers telling them they’re not good enough every day. Some will succumb to those opinions and, eventually, prove to be no good at one or many endeavors. Others will find motivation in sticking it to their critics, in proving the naysayers wrong. In 1998, Doug Flutie did that on a nearly weekly basis. In 2011, Tim Tebow’s doing the same thing.

Unfortunately, Flutie’s ending in Buffalo wasn’t nearly as magical as its beginning. Buried under an irrational benching, a quarterback controversy and the infamous Music City Miracle scam were mere remnants of the freewheeling playmaking that made Flutie’s time in Buffalo so memorable. Some Bills fans still claim that season’s excitement—as well as the luxury suite and season ticket sales triggered by that excitement—saved the franchise from relocating; others have dismissed it as a season lost to a grinning Jimmy Johnson in Miami. If a moment or stretch of time is lionized, fans will build you up as high as they can hoist you. But, in some cases, when the moment drifts off, those same fans will drop you just as fast. As time has passed, Flutiemania—and its place in either national or Buffalo athletic lore—has faded away.

As for Tim Tebow and his aura of perseverance, maybe it’ll continue. Maybe he’ll press on toward the playoffs and into further seasons of pro football brilliance; maybe he’ll crumble under savvy defenses or key team injuries. Denver management will either make him a long-term Bronco or a short-term attraction. Magazines and television talk shows will tout him as a hero or a failure; the chosen one or a major bust. His meteoric professional rise is still on Tebow Time, so enjoy it while it lasts.

Incomprehensible runs like Denver’s don’t happen very often. But, in Buffalo, we know such mystifying seasons have happened before.

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to "Aluminum Park" by My Morning Jacket.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Keys to the El Camino

Right now as I type this, there is a trio of high school kids somewhere, standing in the cold and strumming air guitar. They’re gathered outside a car in an empty parking lot, a darkened playground or an undeveloped cul-de-sac, sipping warm cans of Keystone and defiantly smoking Marlboro Lights. And, cranking steadily out of their neighboring car stereo are head-nodding songs by this new band they just recently discovered called the Black Keys.

Just one problem: the Black Keys aren’t new at all. They’ve actually been at it for over ten years. Eventually, these thirsty, invigorated kids will figure this out, then find the nearest wireless connection for more details. 

Since last year’s high-profile Grammy haul and release of the duo’s ninth studio album, El Camino, it’s been nearly impossible to miss the Keys. Have a television? The Akron natives have had their songs placed in everything from jewelry to credit card to vampire movie ads. Have a radio? Their whistling single “Tighten Up” off previous effort Brothers found regular rotation on college radio stations from Emerson to Berkeley. Been to a national or international music festival in the last two years? They’ve been there, stomping through their latest offerings while sprinkling in flammable cuts from past records like Magic Potion or Rubber Factory. On Tuesday of this week, I heard two of their songs as ESPN commercial cutaways on “Mike & Mike” before hearing their single “Lonely Boy” echo through Buffalo’s First Niagara Center during breaks in the Sabres-Ottawa Senators game.

And that’s how it happens: One minute, you’re watching some greasy gem of a band in the back room of an ale-soaked rock club. The next, that same band is echoing out of an NHL arena’s massive sound system, blanketing a swaying sea of jersey-clad fans who’ve never heard of them.

Now, this isn’t the part where I transition into how tragic it is when bands go mainstream or become popular or are finally fortunate enough to earn a living wage after years of eating cold Jack in the Box in the back of an Astrovan. Every artist should be lucky enough to gain a loyal fan base and earn a living doing what they’re not only good at, but what they love to do. History is littered with authors, filmmakers and musicians who slogged around for years in obscurity before being “discovered” and touted as the next big thing. But, since they’d actually been writing and filming and performing for years, was their previous stuff just not that good, or was it just deemed irrelevant by the subjective, cash-infused mainstream?

Who knows. It’s a debate for college dorm rooms or dive bars, incited by individuals not yet exhausted by chicken-or-the-egg arguments. The important thing isn’t whether the band is welcomed into the fickle bosom of the mainstream; it’s that hard-working bands like the Keys finally found a headline spot at Madison Square Garden with the same material they’ve been dealing out for a decade. They’re gaining exposure to larger audiences, ones that should’ve been around to see their sweaty, unhinged performances on previous, bare-bone tours for Attack & Release; ones who haven’t heard their hip-hop collaboration on Blackroc; ones who missed out on Dan Auerbach’s solo classic, Keep It Hid. Now, instead of entertaining hundreds of black-denimed hipsters milking cans of PBR and frowning under Urban Outfitters eyeglasses, they can ply their trade in front of bigger crowds, ones open to eventually inhaling their entire back catalogue of howling electric stompers and grizzly blues rituals.

Will there be those who purchase El Camino, drop “Lonely Boy” into their iPod and call it a day? Sure. You’ll see these people at the gym, or taking pictures of themselves at a Keys concert with their iPhones. For others, discovering that a modern band has history you know nothing about is exciting. You have new albums to buy, new concerts to go to, and new songs to use on mix discs and iPod playlists. It’s a new soundtrack for your days, nights and weekends.

For those eager to discover what they’ve been missing since The Big Come Up first found Ohio record store shelves in 2002, get ready to find a soundtrack that melts your face and snarls your hair.

As you get started, I’d like to help you with an introductory 15-song Black Keys playlist, one you could download or buy or steal or listen to as soon as you find the end of this post. (I've also provided links to every song--just to make this as easy as possible for you to listen to them.) Some of the mentioned tracks will make you want to drive your car a little faster; a few will make you pull over and relax; and a few others will make you want to douse your car in gasoline, light it on fire and drive it off a cliff in an explosive blaze of glory.

Whatever the case, expect the following songs to make a sonic impression on your already whetted interest.

1.“Breaks” (The Big Come Up)
2. “Next Girl” (Brothers)
3. “10 A.M. Automatic" (Rubber Factory)
4. “I Got Mine” (Attack & Release)
5. “You’re the One” (Magic Potion)
6. “She’s Long Gone” (Brothers)
7. “Grown So Ugly” (Rubber Factory)
8. “Just Got To Be” (Magic Potion)
9. “Done Did It” (Blackroc)
10. “When the Lights Go Out” (Rubber Factory)
11. “Same Old Thing” (Attack & Release)
12. “Your Touch” (Magic Potion)
13. “Set You Free” (Thickfreakness)
14. “What You Do To Me” (Blackroc)
15. “Till I Get My Way" (Rubber Factory)

Hope this helps in your discovery. Until the next experienced and accomplished band becomes the newest sensation, take care.

(Author’s note: This entry was finished while listening to the Black Keys’ Rubber Factory.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Phil Collins Saves Christmas

Black Friday is over. Cyber Monday has passed.

Both have come to stand as the holiday season’s starting pistol. Now, we’re knee-deep in the December action, full of days and nights we’ll exhaustedly troll through shopping malls and sidewalk shops to buy wool sweaters, crime novels or Star Wars Lego sets. But, since I don’t ever purposely partake in either of the aforementioned days, I don’t recognize them as the entrance to the season. I actually wait for a specific sound, one that’s scored Christmas shopping trips since 1984. What noise?

It's the thud of Phil Collins’s foot on the bass drum pedal to introduce Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”

Every year, that thunderous stomp earns another point for the vexing legacy of Phillip David Charles Collins. No recording artist over the past forty years may be more polarizing than ol' PC. By some, he’s recognized as a triple-threat: not only one of the most successful solo artists in pop history, but a scratch prog-rock drummer and legendary frontman. By Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, he’s considered the Antichrist. On one hand, he unexpectedly saved Genesis after the departure of Peter Gabriel. On the other, he made the movie Buster. For every “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe),” “Abacab” and “In The Air Tonight,” there’s an “Easy Lover” and “Jesus He Knows Me.” His tremendous multi-tasking on Gretsch drums and signature vocals? The Herculean confidence he’s instilled in the male pattern baldness community? It’s all been swallowed by the video for “I Can’t Dance” and Christian Bale’s maniacal fandom in American Psycho.

This is an absolute injustice, and it’s one we’re all reminded of every year—right before Paul Young creeps to the mic for Africa.

Should there even be a debate about the accomplishments of a guy who, if you type “Phil” into Google, is automatically your first search option? Debate about a gentleman who, along with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, is the only recording artist to ever have sold over 100 million albums as a band member and a solo artist? Should I have to rush to the defense of a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member who unleashed such classic songs as “Misunderstanding,” “I Missed Again” and “No Reply At All” on the world? And, should there be even a sliver of conflict concerning a guy who unintentionally provided eighties theme music for sleek dudes sporting the t-shirt-suit combo?

Defending Collins’s case is frustrating—and personal—for me. For one, I proudly own multiple Phil Collins and Genesis albums. I also used to own a 32-ounce red plastic mug from his solo But, Seriously World Tour. It featured Phil's face and autograph under the rim, and dutifully served as my keg cup at St. Bonaventure University in the late nineties. (I found the cup in my parents’ basement in 1996. To this day, no one can vouch for where it came from, thus leading me to assume it was a gift from God.) Finally, I tried to convince my wife to choose Genesis’s “Follow You, Follow Me” for our wedding song. This didn’t happen. Her reasoning? She thought that our wedding guests would assume we chose the song as a joke.

Did Collins bring this heat on himself, or is the unraveling of his credibility completely unjust? History would indicate a little of both.

No one held Phil Collins at gunpoint and made him record “Sussudio.” I assume he was at least partially involved in the decision to fill most of Genesis’s late catalogue with mandatory keyboard solos. Though he was not contractually obligated to do so, he still agreed to the freaky, rubber puppets used in the Genesis video for “Land of Confusion”, as well as a solo career filled with dramatic, weepy numbers about rain or divorce. And, in looking back at his past fashion choices, he probably didn’t need to treat the eighties like every day was a country club's dress-down day. Those pictures and bits of film of him rocking the sweater vest-khaki combo haven’t aged too well.

But, is it fair for the guy’s indispensable musical contributions to be buried under artistic sins that pale in comparison to ones that haven’t foiled other accomplished artists? Absolutely not. Paul McCartney’s feathered mullet, fashion vests and “Silly Love Songs” didn’t unravel his work with The Beatles. Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery and sleepovers didn’t erase the greatness of Off the Wall or Thriller. Elton John spent nearly the entire eighties and nineties burying his incendiary seventies work under a pile of adult contemporary and Lion King songs, yet he now boasts knighthood. Phil Collins? He records the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Tarzan and he’s publicly (and acceptably) raked over the media coals by the writers of South Park.

No matter what makes sense, this subjective treatment will continue because, for some reason, it’s fashionable. Alec Baldwin-led television shows will land hilarious Collins-related jokes, albeit at Phil's expense. Wiry hipsters will make uninformed, humorless jokes inside record shops and subway cars. Frat brothers will drunkenly flail about to mimic the epic snare break of “In The Air Tonight.” After, they’ll high-five, laugh, quote lines from The Hangover, then vomit into a kitchen sink.

Unfortunately, the man whose genius is behind these drunken imitations isn’t coming back to defend himself. Due to a combination of frustration, suicidal thoughts and a dislocated vertebrae in his neck, he’ll never get behind a drum kit again. His legacy will continue to stir debates in which both sides think their opinion should stand uncontested. But, no matter what side you’re on this holiday season, at least respect the role Phil Collins serves for so many fans of the greatest Jesus-themed, Bono-hijacked holiday effort ever recorded.

Every year, his percussive brilliance lets us all know it’s Christmas time.

(Author's note: This entry was finished while listening to Phil Collins on Face Value.)