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
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.