The pro football (that’s American football, none of this soccer stuff) conference championships are this weekend. And this year, the choices are pretty easy for me.
None of my favorite teams (Bucs, Dolphins, Raiders) made the playoffs. But several of my second-tier teams did, and two of them — New Orleans and Indianapolis — are in the championship games.
I’ve always been fond of New Orleans. My family used to live there, and I was born in Oschner Hospital. And the Saints — neé the “Ain’ts” were for many years the league’s most hapless and lovable losers. I have a soft spot for losers — hence my support for the Buccaneers and the Democratic Party. (Just kidding.) And the city needs this: the Saints have a large impact — psychologically and financially — on New Orleans. Although the game is being played in Chicago, the better the team does now, the more enthusiasm for next year, the more tourists, etc. Besides, in a city still reeling from the effects from Katrina a year and a half later, don’t you want good things for them?
And then there is the Manning factor. That would be Archie Manning.
Archie Mannning was maybe one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He just played for the Saints. For ten years. Ten years without a single winning season. According to Wikipedia, had sacks against been an official statistic, he would have held the record. In 1972, he set the League record for pass attempts and completions, and for yards passing, all for a team that went 2-11-1. Hell, the one year the Saints hit .500 (1978), Manning was named NFC Player of the Year. He ended his career with the Oilers and Vikings, teams which went a combined 6-35 when he was with them.
He survived all this with grace and humor. He once said, ““I never intended to stay in New Orleans, … [But] along the way, New Orleans was really good to me. We were the only pro team in town. We weren’t too good, but the fans were passionate about the Saints and extremely good to me and my family.” Such an attitude is rare in professional sports. Archie Manning was — and is — a class act.
Now, of course, he’s mostly known as Peyton’s (and Eli’s) dad. And Peyton plays for the Colts. It would be lovely to have one of Archie’s kids go to the Super Bowl, since he only had the chance of a snowball in hell of going himself when he was playing.
But the real reason I root for the Colts these days is Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy used to be the coach at Tampa Bay, which is my team. He was a damn fine coach there. He made the Bucs respectable — so that we could say “I’m a Buccaneers fan,” and people would no longer laugh at us.
Dungy was unceremoniously dumped in 2002. He had gotten the Bucs to the playoffs, but not to the Super Bowl. It was handled poorly, and many people thought he got a raw deal. The Bucs brought in Jon Gruden, who won the Super Bowl the very next year.
With the team Dungy had assembled. Completely. In the four seasons since, the Bucs have only had one winning season — 2005, when they won their division — in contrast to the three seasons before that, when they had made the playoffs every year.
Dungy moved on to Indianapolis, but many Bucs fans still have a warm place in our hearts for him. He and his family are still so well regarded in the Tampa Bay area that when his son committed suicide in January 2006 — four years after he left the team — it was front page news in the St. Petersburg Times.
So this week I’ll pull for the Colts against the Patriots (and haven’t the Patriots just been to the Super Bowl too many times already?) and the Saints against da Bears. If they both win and go on the Super Bowl, well, I’ll worry about that then.
I’ll root for the Clydesdales.