This weekend's conference championship games in the NFL were a wonderful thing to watch. Both games saw back and forth, competitive football that came down to crucial plays at the end of the game. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, there isn't much more a football fan can hope for than overtime in one game and a last-second, game-deciding field goal kick in the other. The down-to-the-wire nature of the games in the AFC and NFC set up two dramatic plays that ended up deciding the outcome of both contests, and while that shows you just how fun and enthralling sports can be as a form of entertainment, the end of both games also accentuated what is another perennial part of athletic competition: heartbreaking moments created by huge mistakes on big plays.
For the Ravens, who lost to the New England Patriots on a last-second field goal miss by their kicker Billy Cundiff that would have tied the game and sent it into overtime, the sting is particularly sharp. What you will hear from coaches and players on both sides after a game like this is that one play doesn't decide a game, but what fans and the general sporting public know is that a bromide like that is not an adequate salve to heal the kind of gaping wound that Ravens' players, coaches, and fans now have bleeding across their hearts. Cundiff missed the kind of big field goal he has been making all year on the Ravens run to the AFC Championship Game, a 32 yarder that most of his positional peers would agree is the kind of short-distance kick you want to be faced with (if you must be faced with one that ties/decides the game in its final moments).
But Cundiff pulled the kick left (or right if you're watching from home), and the Ravens didn't get a chance to play an extra period that could have earned them a trip to Indianapolis to play in the Super Bowl. Now there is a long list of kickers who have made similar mistakes, from Scott Norwood's miss in the Super Bowl XXV to Boise State's Kyle Brotzman's multiple big-game misses, to Ray Finkle's fictitious though equally memorable "laces out" moment, there are more kickers ruing the day they decided to quit the soccer team and play football than there are Adam Vinatieries. Now Cundiff joins that club of unfortunate place kickers and has to deal with the fact that his stellar season and consistent poise at the end of many a game will now be footnotes on a resumé with only one real headline: Missed game-tying field goal against Patriots, cost team chance to play in Super Bowl.
Across the country in San Francisco, where the 49ers played the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, a similar late-game miscue cost a team a trip to the Super Bowl. The 49ers fill-in punt returner Kyle Williams (who stepped in for an ailing Ted Ginn Jr.) fumbled the football on a run back in overtime, giving the Giants the ball in field goal range. The Giants pushed the ball a bit farther down the field before Lawrence Tynes split the uprights and gave New York the win and made Kyle Williams a Bay-Area-sized goat. Again, you'll hear from coaches and players that one play doesn't decide a game, but the fumble was Williams' second misstep on a punt return that day, and like Cundiff, he did the one thing he couldn't afford to do in his situation: he cost his team a chance to win the football game.
The two players' similar plights are a fascinating storyline folllowing the conference championships, and they are an example of something I think that everyone above ground can relate to: making a mistake when a mistake could not be afforded. I always like to say that this blog is a place where sports and life intertwine, and with that in mind I can't help but look at the human aspect of the story of Cundiff and Williams. Say what you want about the fact that they're just playing a game and that it isn't the end of the world and blah blah blah, but the simple truth is that this was the biggest moment of both of their professional careers, with millions of people staring at them on televisions across the country, and they shit the bed, plain and simple. If you're a 49ers or Ravens fan I'm sorry for your losses, but if you're a human being, you have to feel for these guys.
Think about it. I think there is a moment in everyone's life where you're sitting there, pressure on, telling yourself that no matter what, under no circumstance can you "insert appropriate action". And then you do it. And you can't believe you just did it. And it feels like the world just spun off its axis and you're in the middle of a Dali masterpiece because life just got so surreal. The sounds and faces around you are muffled and blurred, you are completely inside your own head where the phrase that keeps careening from one side of your skull to the next is: "this is not happening, this is not happening." For both of these players, it was happening, it did happen. Now all they can do is wallow in that failure, face it, accept it, and attempt to move on.
We can search for analogous circumstances for this kind of a mistake, and to stay with the world of sports for a moment, maybe you're a young girl or an international superstar who forgets the words to the National Anthem, or an over-excited soccer star who drops the championship trophy under the wheels of a bus. Or for more real-world examples, maybe you're a bride who falls on her face on the way to the altar or a waitress who drops a bottle of $200 wine on the way to a table full of particularly well-to-do customers or a classically trained cellist who misses a note in their Juilliard audition. There are a million high pressure situations where the one thing you cannot do is the one thing you end up doing. It might ruin the moment, crush your pride, or leave you with an unbearable level of embarrassment, but at the end of the day there's that old adage that you can always lean upon: everyone makes mistakes. Sure, they don't always come in an important, life-changing moment, but they are always there to be made and as human beings, it is simply despicable to attack your fellow man for your own homo sapien borne lack of perfection.
It's why I commend both Cundiff and Williams for the amount of composure they have maintained in the face of their errors and for the amount of ownership they have taken for said mistakes. It is also why the reaction on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook and the overreaction of the sports media to their gaffes is absolutely galling to me. Yes, these men failed miserably at the task they are paid a very large some of money to perform, but when fans and the media react the way that they have over the days since Sunday's games it makes me embarrassed to be a human being. Just check out a few of the tweets sent out following the two games:
I'm pretty sure some despicable Ravens fans would like to see Billy Cundiff kick the bucket. Unfortunately for them, he'd probably miss.
The Harbaugh bros will do a live reading of their new book "Billy Cundiff, Kyle Williams and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day"
@Shady_McCoy (that's Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a fellow NFL player mind you...):
I think it's safe to say that Kyle Williams & Billy Cundiff will be taking their talents to the unemployment line. #NOTSC @NOTSportscenter
And those are among the more benign of the tweets sent out. Among the more egregious are death threats to both players and their families from Ravens and 49ers fans and similarly horrible jokes and barbs thrown in their direction. There is an element to gallows humor that as a bit of a prick myself I am willing to allow and the environment on Twitter of snap judgment and the levying of instant admonishment that is expected if not excusable, but threatening a person's life because your team lost a football game is among the most petty and downright deplorable things any sports fan can do. At that point, I believe that your fandom has officially transformed into psychosis and a look in the mirror, not the glossy panel of your smart phone as you thumb out a tweet or Facebook post, is what is truly called for.
While fans or other players may in the end be exonerated by their ignorance, the sporting cognoscenti that type out stories and columns for respected newspapers and websites cannot be given the same amount of leeway. Yes, they are paid to give their opinion and to inspire debate, but there is no reason for Cundiff or Williams to draw comparisons to Bill Buckner or to face the immense barrage of attacks against their skill as players, let alone their worth as human beings (shout out to Stefan Fatsis for the links to those articles). Cundiff and Williams will probably never play the game they love or live their lives in quite the same way following this weekend's games, and instead of vilifying them or piling on, I think that a certain level of compassion and commiseration is in order. These were their "Mr. Destiny" moments, and they both came up short, left to live on wondering what might have been if they had come through in the clutch instead of coming up short.
I guess what I'm trying to say at the end of the day is that while we can all relate to mistakes and failure of one kind or another, no matter how apt a real-world analogy for what happened to these two men may be, it will never quite capture the feeling that must still be permeating their flesh. While we all know our human foibles all too well, there is no comparison for a fan or member of the media or general public to draw on that can possibly allow us to empathize properly. It is why I believe that all we can do in this situation is try. Try to understand what it is like to miss out on a trip to the Super Bowl in front of millions of people and let everyone on your team down when they were counting on you the most. We have to try to give these two men the kind of support we would desire if we were in their shoes, not tear them down and send them death threats and throw any more gasoline on the fire of disappointment they are both now warming their hands by.
I say we move on fast and look on toward the Giants and Pats Super Bowl rematch, because it should be a doozy. Check back to the Hip for a Super Bowl recap soon after the game goes into the books.