Rematch in Space-Time Continuum: N.Y. Giants, Bush, the Super Bowl

Jim Fassel, head coach of the Super Bowl–bound New York

Giants, had it exactly wrong when he contended that his collection of

role-players, journeymen, redemption seekers and stars with no superlatives

could not be considered for the supercilious

sobriquet of “America’s Team.” That title, he explained, has been taken. Indeed

it has-given modern athletic practices, it would be astonishing to discover

that the title has not been trademarked or rented for use by a car company, a

commercial airline or a jock-itch remedy.

In speaking of the America’s Team brand, Mr. Fassel was

referring to the Dallas Cowboys, an organization that presumes to speak for no

less an entity than the nation itself. But not even the haughty Cowboys would,

at such a low, dispirited moment in their history (five wins and 11 losses this

year), dare to suggest that they somehow encapsulate the American Zeitgeist . Unless, that is, Alan

Greenspan is about to be revealed as not so much the monetary-policy equivalent

of Vince Lombardi in 1968 (a maestro indeed) but of Mike Ditka in 1999-his

greatest successes a memory, a prisoner to impending catastrophe.

Whether Mr. Fassel wants the title or not, there can be

little question that the 2000-01 Giants are America’s Team. Culturally, they

are as red as the electoral map of 2000, a conservative team in retro uniforms

that prides itself on dignity and tradition, that looks with disdain upon the

brash and the newfangled. And, like a certain Presidential candidate who

survived the sneers of the coast-hugging elites, they have reached the pinnacle

of their profession without the respect of the opinion-forming classes.

When Wellington Mara, the 84-year-old co-owner of the

Giants, spoke with Fox television commentator Terry Bradshaw after his team

demolished the highly regarded Minnesota Vikings 41-0 on Jan. 14, his words,

with some alteration, could have come from a spokesman for George W. Bush.

“Bear in mind, this is the Giant team that was referred to as the worst team

ever to win a home-field advantage in the National Football League playoffs,”

Mr. Mara said. His is a face that does not hide his years; he has been

associated with Giants football since the 1920’s, and so he had no reason to be

ashamed of the shiny rivulets of joy on each cheek. “And today … we proved

that we’re the worst team ever to win the National Football Conference

championship.” Substitute “dumbest” for “worst,” “candidate” for “team” and

“Presidency” for “National Football Conference championship,” and you have the

sarcastic victory speech Mr. Bush could have given a couple of weeks ago.

The Giants are a restored team in tune with Restoration

America, a team whose co-owner, Mr. Mara, is a throwback to another era: an

elegant, naturally conservative man who raises money for pro-life charities.

His team was last in the national spotlight at Super Bowl XXV in January 1991,

when bombs were falling over Iraq and George Bush was preparing to launch a

ground war in the desert. Whitney Houston sang a spirited version of the

national anthem, a squadron of warplanes flew overhead, soldiers were wished

godspeed and grown men wept. But the commanders, George Bush and Bill Parcells,

soon were gone, the Clinton years were underway and the Giants were dispatched to football’s netherlands,

emerging only briefly in the playoffs, in 1993 and 1997, there to be swatted

away by teams embracing the transient values of the run-and-gun.

Before this season started, the smart money had it that the

Washington Redskins, owned by a creepy dot-com zillionaire named Daniel Snyder,

would leave the Giants in their dust. The Redskins owned a formidable war

chest, hired the best talent money could buy and brazenly shook down fans for

additional contributions.

Jim Fassel, in August, was a head coach heading for certain

dismissal, and the Giants organization itself seemed unfocused and lethargic.

The team won seven of its first nine games and yet created no excitement;

surely this team, with none of the genius of champions past, was unworthy of

high expectations. And yet, it is January and the teams judged more deserving

of the game’s laurels have been defeated, and the Giants and Jim Fassel are on

their way to Florida, site of Super Bowl XXXV, which is expected to be hotly

contested and very likely decided by the slimmest of margins.

No New York team (not even those New York teams that play in

New Jersey) has ever won a championship to so little acclaim. The Yankees and

Mets of the late 1990’s, the Rangers of 1994, the Giants of the Bill Parcells

era, the Knicks and Yankees of the 1970’s: all were celebrated by media and

fans alike. The Giants’ rout of the Vikings was almost as shocking as the Jets’

victory in Super Bowl III-not simply because they won, but because of how they

won. At least the Jets brought along a bandwagon with them in 1969, as did the

Miracle Mets of the same year. But this year’s Giants-well, they were

considered a disaster waiting to happen.

The Giants’ Super Bowl

teams of the past generated excitement all season long. The Jets of 1998-99

dominated the back pages of the tabloids for four months, leading fans and the

press to dream Super Bowl dreams.

The 2000 Giants, however, prompted  low expectations and even contempt. In victory-and there were 12

of them in the regular season-they inspired only shrugs. In defeat, they

invited disgust. During the season’s early weeks, they lost badly to the Titans

and Redskins, later to the Rams and, at the season’s low point, to the mediocre

Lions. Fans and the media howled.

It was after the Lions’

debacle that Jim Fassel guaranteed a playoff berth, an audacious gambit from a

coach who seemed clueless and lost. In the following weeks, however, we learned

something about this seemingly bland but genial man: He is secure enough to let

assistants devise their game plans, wise enough to let others sweat the

details. And so he shared victory with Sean Payton, the offensive coordinator

who engineered the Giants’ amazing display against the Vikings, and John Fox,

the defensive coordinator who shut down one of football’s great offenses.

So the Giants head for Florida with neither the respect nor

the admiration of football’s, er, cultural elite (now there’s a concept). They are underdogs against the Baltimore

Ravens, who will attract some of the Beltway’s flotsam and jetsam.

No doubt, as they

prepare for the big game, the Giants will watch the Inauguration Day ceremonies

on Jan. 20 with some interest. And they may yet get a call from George W. Bush

after their date with the Ravens.

They’d certainly have a lot to talk about.