Bruce Dowbiggin posts his perspective on the world of sports each morning.
Call it Double Play Monday. The San Francisco Giants capture the National League's entry into the World Series, subduing St. Louis in Game 7 on Monday. Those would be the same Giants whom experts said at the midpoint of the year would never get past their California cousins, the L.A. Dodgers.
Thanks to picture-in-picture we also followed a midseason NFC North showdown as the Chicago Bears ran their record to 5-1 against their bitter rivals, the Detroit Lions. The Bears staked their claim to contender status.
What's striking about both games is not what we know about San Fran at season's end, but how little we really know about the Bears at midseason.
At the risk of creating massive unemployment in the sportswriter/ broadcaster prognosticator demo, passing judgment at midseason in any pro sports league is now fool's errand. Honestly, as the leagues met in the MLB All Star Game to decide home field in the World Series, who thought we'd see San Francisco emerge as survivors of the NL gauntlet?
If you listened to the chattering classes, it was the Washington Nationals with their glitzy 48-33 record who were odds-on to be playing in mid-October. If not the Nats then maybe Cincinnati or the L.A. Dodgers who both boasted 48-33. The Dodgers were three games up on the 45-36 Giants who reportedly couldn't score runs. At a mediocre 42-39, the Cardinals were going to be road kill. Yet Monday night it was Giants and Cards on TV while the rest were just watching TV.
As the All Stars met in Kansas City, the American League was being conceded to the mighty Texas Rangers (50-31), the Angels of Anaheim (45-36) or the Yankees (49-32). The Tigers were a stumbling 39-42 and smelling the vapour trail of the White Sox and Indians (42-39). The playoff bound Oakland A's were a laughingstock in the media at 39-42. Lot they knew.
Wednesday, it'll be Jim Leyland's crew against the Giants. Glad we weren't betting on midseason form of either.
This is no aberration. In the NFL, the last two Super Bowl winners got to late season looking like they'd been rode hard and hung up wet. Last season the New York Giants were flatlining with just weeks to go. Then they doubled down on Eli Manning, won six straight and captured SB XLVI. The year prior, the Green Bay Packers were sitting at a middling 8-6; the Pack then won their final six straight to grab the Super Bowl title.
The Los Angeles Kings were no one's darling at the midpoint of the 2011-12 NHL season. They'd fired coach Terry Murray and appeared headed to nowhere. Instead the eighth seed snuck in as eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. There, they blew away everyone they faced in the postseason, winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
In the CFL, everyone knows that the Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions were 0-5 and 1-6 before hitting the accelerator and flattening the opposition on their way to the 2011 Grey Cup. The Lions look invincible now but don't be surprised if they're surprised next month.
So what's happening here? With results like these, you'd be better off getting your picks from Jim Cramer and his CNBC Squawk Box.
Should we do away with the first half of the season? Should we do away with those midseason TV panels projecting results? The biggest reason for the late comebacks is that the unrelenting parity leagues insist on these days favours late finishers. It eliminates superior teams and squishes everyone in the mosh pit of mediocrity.
Without a 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens or 1972 Miami Dolphins setting a very high bar, teams like the Tigers, N.Y. Giants, B.C. Lions or L.A. Kings can drift along for much of a season and still have room to come from off the pace.
Perhaps the wisest thing we ever heard about champion teams came from CFL coaching legend Wally Buono. As his B.C. Lions prepared for the 2004 Grey Cup game, I asked him what he'd say to his team before the game. "Not much," said Buono. Really? What about the old Knute Rockne?
Buono then explained that coaches can only take a team about two-thirds of the way into a season. After that, the players take over and decide if they'll make the commitment to winning. Once they buy in to each other, the coaches are simply there for maintenance. Buono knew his team had bought in and he could only mess that up with a big speech.
Look at the records of all the champion teams we've mentioned above. In every case, the team caught fire with a third of the season left and carried that camaraderie to a title. So while the Chicago Bears seem destined for greatness after beating Detroit, better to wait till the start of December before making any judgments on who'll win the Vince Lombardi trophy.
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