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.



Andy Lyons, Getty Images
So last night, No. 2 Alabama trounced No. 1 LSU and won the BCS National Championship game. But are they really the best team in college football? This seems like a ridiculous question and a complete contradiction in terms, but it is a question that you will hear asked for the remainder of the day and the remainder of the week, if not the remainder of the college football off-season. That's because the system for determining the best team in college football is so completely flawed and blatantly inadequate, that it has become the laughing stock of American sports. In no other major sport do conjecture and opinion weigh so heavily on the crowning of a champion, because every other major sport has made the logical and obvious decision that a playoff system is the only fair and just way to give fans, players, coaches, and universities a satisfying outcome to a long and grueling college football season.

The issue of what to do about college football's national championship has many subtle and complex features and no one solution will ever solve the many ills that exist in the sport's current post-season incarnation, but it is abundantly clear that what the NCAA and BCS are doing right now does not work, will not work, and needs to be changed as soon as humanly possible. Why? Because the National Championship Game is over and done with and could not have been decided by a more clear and obvious margin of victory (Alabama - 21, LSU - could have just stayed at the team hotel) but there are still murmurs throughout the sports media that the national title should be "split". And not just between the two teams that played last night, but possibly with No. 3 Oklahoma State, who had the same record as Alabama entering last night's game and actually won its conference title in more than convincing fashion in the Big 12.

Of course, all of this opinion and second-guessing of the outcome of the game comes from the fact that Alabama and LSU already played earlier in the season in a game that LSU won 9-6 in overtime. But because college football relies on polls of sports writers and coaches, blended with the statistical analysis of a computer ranking system, Alabama finished No. 2 in the final BCS Rankings (notice how BCS.org links you to ESPN for that info? Who says the mothership isn't controlling sports...) and got a second chance to play the undefeated and clear No. 1 team in the nation, LSU. Now I'm not going to sit here and tell you that rankings aren't necessary in college athletics, because they are. With so many teams  involved you have to sort out the chaos some way. This isn't professional sports where teams can play the majority (or all) of the other teams in their sport during the regular season and enter a manageable playoff bracket.

But while rankings are necessary to help determine the quality of a team's stock, they should not and cannot be the sole factor in determining who gets to play for college football's national championship. If this is going to continue to be the case, then college football will lose its designation as an according-to-Hoyle sport. I spent a previous post on just this very subject and deemed anything that relies on judges and opinion and cannot determine a clear-cut victor by means of wins and losses athletic competition and not a true sport. Sports are defined by a winner and a loser, a champion and everybody else. This is not something that college football can claim to have under its current system.

It is in danger of becoming no better than gymnastics or figure skating or diving--and that is not an assault on the merit of the athletes that take part in those forms of competition--where judges and their opinions determine a champion. How is that any different than how college football currently operates? Sure, the individual games during the regular season have a winner and a loser, but what does that matter if at the end of the year their wins and losses might not mean anything? What does it matter if a team like Oklahoma State can lose as many games as Alabama, but not even have a chance of playing for the national championship? Heck, why do we even have a final score in the National Championship Game? Why not just play four quarters, then have a group of judges and pollsters look at the game and decide who they think actually won. That way if a team loses on a last-second hail mary touchdown pass, but actually played a better game of football than its opponent, they get the win because they are better and deserved it more.

That sounds foolish right? Well I don't see how the BCS and its ranking system and this anachronistic reliance on the bowl system is any less foolish. The bottom line in college football is money and revenue, but that is true in every other sport as well. And the plain fact is that a playoff system is more lucrative in every other sport, but fans have continually been told that this is not the case in college football. So because of the bottom line and the long tradition of the bowl system, teams, fans and coaches are forced to be continually unsatisfied with how their sport determines its champion. And don't even start with the whole "most coaches want to keep the current system as-is". Yeah, most coaches that coach for a team that has a chance at getting into the National Championship Game under the current system feel that way. They are like anybody else: when a system is set up to benefit you, the last thing you do is question whether or not it's the way things oughtta be.

So what's the solution? Well, for me it has to be a playoff that also kowtows to the BCS and their continued proclamation that the bowl system must be left intact. Fine, let's do that. All of the lesser bowls and their meaningless outcomes can stick around. The only thing I'll touch in my playoff system are the top 6 teams in the end-of-the-regular-season BCS rankings. Here's how I think it should work:

What we need is a short, but effective playoff bracket that will still reward teams for ending up in the top two slots of the BCS rankings, and not shatter the bowl system completely, something that BCS will try to convince you would happen if a playoff system were implemented. The most agreed upon and logical next step in the eyes of many is the so-called "Plus-one" format. This would be analogous to the "Final Four" in college basketball, where the top four teams would advance to have a shot at playing in the championship game. The No. 1 team would play the No. 4 team, the No. 2 team would play the No. 3 team, and the winners of those two games would play for a shot at the "Crystal Egg" in the National Championship game.

This simple addition of one game solves many of the problems with the current system, but in my eyes falls just a bit short. I would instead put forth a six-team playoff system that would work exactly like the playoff system in the NFL, if instead of two conferences, there were only one. In the NFL, six teams make it into the playoffs in both the AFC and NFC, with the top two teams receiving first round "byes". They sit at home while No. 3 plays No. 6 and No. 4 plays No. 5. After those games are played, No. 1 gets the lowest ranked team remaining, while No. 2 would play the next highest team remaining. Then you would basically have the "Plus-one" or "Final Four" and things would play out according to the manner I just mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I consider this to be the best way to do things for a few reasons. It would still give the BCS what it currently has: marquee match-ups for the teams that sit atop the BCS rankings, and an opportunity to keep all of the other bowls as exhibition games for teams that played well enough to be bowl eligible. At the same time this six-team format is at once far more lucrative and attention-grabbing, making for 3 (or at most 4, if an off-week is included before the championship game) weeks at the end of the year that would be among the most exciting in the world of sports. Not only that, but the new system is short enough that players would not miss an egregious amount of school time because of holiday schedules and it would not interfere with any other major sport's playoffs or regular season in a significant way. The way things are now, the regular season is over by the first week of December, but the National Championship is not played until the second week in January. 

This playoff structure would actually shave some time off of that timeline and give fans what they want: a legitimate process for determining a champion.

It would also prevent a lot of bellyaching by teams like this year's Oklahoma State squad, who have just as good a claim on being in the championship game as Alabama, but are left out in the cold. Sure, the pollsters might have cost the Cowboys a first-round bye, but they would be "in the tournament" that decides who is champ and could play their way into the National Championship Game the same way the other 5 teams involved with the playoff could. It's certainly a lot better than telling the Cowboys, "Great job guys, you lost only one game all year, an overtime road game that came on the heels of learning that two of your women's basketball coaches died in a tragic accident. You fought hard and have as many losses as Alabama, and unlike them, actually won your conference title, but by the weight of opinion only, you will not get a chance to prove you are the best team in the country. Instead, you get to play a meaningless game against fellow heavyweight Stanford (which you will win) and go home thinking about what might have been had you been given the shot to play LSU in the National Championship Game." 

Mike Gundy is a man, but I don't think he's taking his team's ranking in the final BCS standings and narrow (we're talking percentage points of percentage points here) third place finish behind the Crimson Tide like one, certainly not after Alabama's manhandling of LSU last night. The six-team system makes so much sense because with that many teams, the chance of leaving out a truly deserving squad is mitigated greatly, the prestige and position of the current BCS Bowls is maintained, and the remaining bowl games don't lose any of their current, rather dull, luster. It seems to me that under this system, everybody wins and finally and at long last, college football could identify a true and clear-cut national champion without any of the speculation and controversy it is currently forced to endure each and every year around this time. Hopefully this time next year, the BCS and the NCAA will have both gotten their respective acts together, and I will be able to whole-heartedly congratulate the national champion. That's something that as of right now, I simply cannot do.