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Death March on South Street

On Sunday, November 28, 2010, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, I became a Real Football Fan.

A few weeks ago, my friends in Indy organized a mass ticket purchase for seven seats in the northeast corner of the stadium, near the giant sliding windows that frame the crowd’s view of downtown.  As you know if you read my second post on this blog, I am a diehard Colts fan.  But I had never been to a game, not even a college game.  (However, I was one of the dorks in the upper section of the stands, away from the student section, at my high school games.  Because I actually wanted to watch the game.  In retrospect, high school football sucks.  Ahh, the innocence of youth.)  Attending a game was the last step of my journey to the apex of fandom.  Consider yourself a Real Football Fan?  You think you know, but you have no idea.  This is the diary of a Real Football Fan.

I awoke that Sunday in the small home of my mother’s friend–she was dog-sitting–in a semi-panic, as my throat felt scratchy and on the brink of Sore.  How could I possibly yell for four quarters*?  I chugged water and orange juice and more water, and my mother provided me with a crucial cough drop.  Then I lazed on the couch for a few hours, considering eating though I wasn’t particularly hungry, and flipping through those god-awful NFL pregame shows (hey Fox guys:  you’re NOT THAT FUNNY) before I found ESPN2 for the final tour tennis match of the year, a well-played three-setter in which Roger Federer toppled Rafael Nadal.  This match coincided with a sterling NFC battle between Green Bay and Atlanta, but Fed/Nadal is Must See TV (you know, right up there with The Single Guy.)  Both players were undefeated through the final, and though Nadal struggled against Andy Murray the day before, he was primed to capture his first ever year-end title.  But Federer hit his cross-court backhand too well, which neutralized Nadal’s–well, this is a post for another time.

*Well, approximately two quarters, as I’m not going to be an ass and yell while Peyton is making his audibles.  You know, he’s not the only quarterback that occasionally changes the play, so why do fans at other stadiums, particularly those outdoors, yell their asses off the entire game?  Can’t they do their offenses a favor and shut the hell up for a few seconds?  They can cheer after the successful play, which would come as a result of a fully understood audible.

The match was over, and it was 3:00 at this point.  My friends had already found a spot near the stadium for tail-gating, the other football fan staple that I had yet to experience.  Time to deck myself in blue, right?  Uh, sure.  Too bad I own virtually no Colts gear.  (No, your purchasing power does not establish your level of team devotion!)  But if I wasn’t going to go Colts-ed out, I could at least dress well.  So I put together the gayest possible costume one could wear to a football game–a light green v-neck sweater over a brown button-down, well-fitting dark blue jeans, and black dress shoes, under my peacoat.  Let me tell you, it screamed “Go Horse.”  Armed with a plastic shopping bag full of Budweiser, I made my way to South and Pennsylvania for some beer pong and hot dogs.

Needless to say, I felt a little silly arriving to a sea of jerseys, blue body paint, Colts flags, blue nail polish, blue Solo cups, blue blue blue blue.  Even on a diet of a single grapefruit, I knew it was time to start drinking; I cracked open a Bud and mingled with the ladies that were already there.  I met one friend’s husband for the first time, and proceeded to destroy him in a transcendent stretch of beer pong play, the finest of my life.  This is a good sign, I thought–my throwing arm felt good, I was hitting the cups easily, taking what the defense gave me (I made a good 4 bounces)–I’ve got Peyton Power.  I cracked another Bud, because these losers were drinking all my beer pong beer*, and followed my already-drunk friend over to another squadron of tail-gaters who were watching the Eagles-Bears game.

*After writing this sentence, I thought to myself**, “You’re writing an awful lot about beer pong.”  But I’m not in a fraternity, and I don’t want to be, and I never play beer pong otherwise.  And it was Colts beer pong.  That’s, like, different.  So fuck off!

**How did the phrase “thought to myself” enter the collective lexicon?  How do you think to someone else?***

***This whole asterisk thing is really indulgent.

I can acknowledge that, until recently, I have historically had trouble associating with random hetero strangers.  But as my love for sports, specifically football, has grown, I have realized that all I need to do is go up and start rambling about whatever is happening on the TV, and someone else will shoot the shit with me.  “Oh, running on 3rd and 6?  With that offensive line?”  “I know.  Terrible!  You gotta pass there.”  &c, &c.  Such a strategy has helped to ease my inner tension around Dudes, but has also had the unfortunate side effect of confirming that your typical heterosexual male is thoroughly uninteresting in almost every way.  I feel I have chosen my male friends in the same way I’ve chosen my female friends–based upon shared personality quirks, specific interests, lifestyle similarities, and so on.  But I think all it takes for Dudes to be friends is, you know, “we both like video games, or whatever, ya know?”  “Dude, check it out.  That chick is so hot.”  “I know!  Dude!”

So I’m with my friend, a married girl (and yes, at least one guy thought I was the husband, but it’s not like I’m asking this girl to have her arm around me, although at the same time I obviously didn’t mind, so I’m just rolling with it), and we chat up these guys about the game.  I start talking to one of them about how I’m from Chicago.  We talk about the Bears, Wrigley Field, blah blah, and then someone mentions something about Boystown.  Now, I lived in Boystown for the summer, and it can be an intense area.  Not my style.  I understand ethnic ghettos, but sexual ghettos?  Anyway, one of these guys said something about “we’re not homophobes, we don’t care,” and I don’t now remember the context, but I thought, “huh, that was unprovoked, but I approve.”  So I’m yammering on about how I used to live there, and had to throw in some comment about how I “swing that way, but it’s not my scene.”  And even though I’m drunk, a couple seconds after I blurt that out, I mentally freeze.

I hear sounds in my head straight out of a sitcom soundtrack–screeching tires, smashing metal, the round wobble of a settling hubcap.  Why did you just say that?  That kind of shit is really immaterial to the conversation here, even if we were discussing Gayworld USA.  Must this guy know I’m a homo?  Can’t you just continue talking shit about the Bears’ offensive line, rather than gauge some stranger’s acceptance of a football-loving queer?  Perhaps I was influenced by a Steelers fan I met at Mullen’s on Clark, the Colts bar in Chicago.  He picked me out as one of Them (also implicating my roommate Kyle at the time, but he gamely laughed it off), but then talked about his transformation from hater to, uh, tolerator, and how the move to Chicago helped him realize that, as Paul McCartney so eloquently put it, “people are the same wherever you go.”  It was a reassuring encounter, knowing that even if people recognized my orientation, they weren’t judging my worth as a person.  I guess I was just curious to see if this type of blindness would spill over to the real Midwest (where is that bitch now?).

All of this flashed through my mind in about seven seconds.  But wait a minute–why am I turning this most bland and meaningless encounter into some deep psychosexual sociology study?  I quickly downed the rest of my beer, let out a strong belch, spewed some more football Xs and Os bullshit, and ran off to find a hot dog.  At this point in the evening, the sun has gone down, the temperature has dropped a good six to eight degrees, and I really have to fucking pee.  My friends had informed me of a nearby Arby’s bathroom use policy (just buy some fries or something), but of course, we just made a beeline for the pisser.  I took care of business and waited outside for my lady friends, watching others with the same intentions stream inside.  I was just alcohol-fueled enough to start assaulting everyone with Colts spirit, and as passers-by approached the entrance, I looked them straight in the eye and gave them a firm but even-keeled “Go Colts.”

“Go Colts.”  [blank stare]
“Go Colts.”  [confused stare]
“Go Colts.”  [blank stare]
“Go Colts.”  [blank stare]
“Go Colts.”  “Go Colts!”  [Jesus.  It’s about time.  Was that so hard?]
“Go Colts.”  [snarl of disgust]

What the hell?  We’re mere hours from gametime, against the freaking Chargers and pretty boy douchebag Philip Rivers, an A-1 asshole so assholish that I’m convinced half of San Diego hates him, and the indifference of my former neighbors disturbs me.  I must have another beer.  We storm back across the street, where I retrieve my gray Colts t-shirt from my southside friends (thanks friends) and I chug another Budweiser.  (Homeboy is not about to pay eight dollars for a Bud Light, I don’t care how awesome the Bud Light Zone is.)  I watch the waning moments of the Bears victory, and for the first time feel a genuine appreciation for a Bears victory.  This appreciation is mostly fueled by the sight of a Colts conqueror going down, but I can throw my current hometown team a bone.  The southsiders wisely had purchased a 36-pack of Boxer lager (better than PBR!) and I downed one or two more of those.  Finally, the time has come–it’s 7:45, and we’re ready to march over to “the Luke.”

At this point, I’m indiscriminately bellowing “Go Colts!  Go Cooooooooolts!  Go Hoooooooorse!” to anyone who looks my way.  I am entirely consumed by the sight of the deep blue end zones, the players streaming onto the field.  Peyton seeing a hole in the defense and exploiting it for a touchdown.  Freeney and Mathis stuffing that piece of shit Rivers and his big dumb stupid cuts-his-own-hair dumbface.  I can’t wait to be surrounded by other rabid Horsies, ready at a moment’s notice to distribute high-fives and “Whoooo!”s.  Yes, I even looked forward to chanting [it’s another Indianapolis Colts…] “FIRST DOWN!”  (It isn’t so cute when every freaking stadium does this.)  It’s game time, bitches!  But the stream of fans entering the stadium lacked any gusto, or at least any audible gusto.  Where is their passion?  Why isn’t everyone else as pumped as I am?

*     *     *

Since I’ve moved to Chicago, my passion for the Ponies has only grown.  Every game, quarter, play feels crucial.  Maybe I’ve adopted the sense of urgency that the players have; after all, sixteen games leave little room for error.  The scene at Mullen’s after last year’s Patriots classic…total madness.  And so when I’m outside the stadium, mere minutes from a clash with the team I’d argue Horse fans hate more than any other, and I can barely get a reciprocal “Go Colts”?  My first red flag.

We’re in uncharted waters as Colts fans, specifically as Manning-era Colts fans.  Not since Edgerrin James went down with knee injuries in 2001, two years before Peyton would win his first MVP, have we experienced so many losses in one season.  And by “so many losses” I mean…five.  Football normalcy for most teams is anarchy for Hoosiers; just ask Panthers or Lions fans how they would feel about only having five losses so far.  “6-5?  Check, please!”

But our troubles go beyond the simplistic idea of win-loss.  The Horses have played so poorly in recent games that their struggles have faded from the public consciousness.  Peyton’s four picks?  Whatever–he’s supposed to do that against the Chargers.  (By the way, thanks, San Diego, for stealing a win from us.  We know you’re just going to blow it in the playoffs.  Why bother with this charade?)  Two losses in a row?  I can’t really remember the last time that happened, unless you want to count the Super Bowl.  (And I don’t.)  After such an ugly loss, it’s easy to overlook the defense’s relative success against SD’s potent offense.  But a Colts fan’s entire perspective is so skewed right now.  What is really going wrong?

Gregg Easterbrook posits that the offense has become predictable.*  I say that’s a weak and somewhat disingenuous argument–the Indy offense runs on Peyton’s crafty, opportunistic play-calling.  Easterbrook himself acknowledges this (he calls it a “warning”) in a post before last year’s Super Bowl.  And his only shred of evidence for this is the Terry Porter pick, and I’ve offered my thoughts on that before.  I will say that I cringe when I see Peyton audible out of shotgun to go under center, only to see Donald Brown run right into Jeff Whozenbach.  But we know the running game sucks.  Let’s look a little bit deeper into (my best guesses at) the Xs and Os of our recent mediocrity.

*If you watch the video recap at the top of that Easterbrook article, you’ll see them break down the first Peyton pick, to Kevin Barnett.  On that play, Donald Brown is wide open for a massive gain.  But the o-line–I mean, forget the run.  Peyton barely has a pocket there, and no time to make even a slight read.  He looks for Wayne, the security blanket, and Barnett makes a nice read and slips into the zone.  I can’t help but feel that if Peyton has even a half-second extra there, he finds Brown for a 30-yard gain.

Whither the stretch play? The more I pondered what I consider to be the quintessential Colts offensive play–the stretch–the more I realized just how crucial left tackle is to our offense.  It’s been well documented that Tony Ugoh was a biff by Billy Polian, but I believe the stretch play, and everything it does for our offense, disappeared with the retirement of Tarik Glenn.

After Peyton had his two knee surgeries following the ’07 season, many speculated that the slow healing process hampered his speed in reaching the running back on the handoff.  This may have been true for a few games, but Peyton has looked mobile enough from the second half of that season on.  (And no one has confused Peyton with Steve Young recently.)  So where is the stretch play?

The line simply cannot block anyone.  Thus, the collapse of the running game.  Without an even decent running game, play-action becomes useless.  And at this point, we don’t even run enough to make play-action a valid option.  (Hell, we can barely pass protect–but I’ll get to that in a second.)  Against San Diego, the Colts ran the ball 13 times–and averaged less than TWO yards a carry!  What defense is going to respect a play fake when their front four (or three even) can stop our backs?

But back to the stretch play.  In the Colts O’s boffo-scoring halcyon days, this play nearly guaranteed success.  If Edgerrin James wasn’t picking up six to eight yards running through the zone blocks, Peyton was faking to him on the stretch, then settling into the pocket for a moment to find an open player, often for a large gain.  Following Glenn’s surprise retirement after the Super Bowl, the Colts have not found a left tackle capable of holding off an opposing defense’s best defensive end long enough to let a route develop downfield off play-action.

Bruce Paine of Cobra Brigade wrote up an excellent analysis of the stretch play all the way back in 2007.  If you’re into the deeper Xs and Os, I highly recommend checking it out.

Ironically, Stampede Blue argued last year that we have relied too much on the stretch play, which weakened our inside running game.  I guess we’ve come full circle.  The running game debate leads me to…

Offensive identity. Last year’s Super Bowl run showed that you can almost ignore the running game and still have success–well, with Peyton at quarterback.  But the manifold injuries this year have burdened Peyton to the extreme, and with no running game whatsoever to check back to, he’s throwing over 40 times a game to people like Jacob Tamme and Blair White.  They’ve filled in sufficiently, but we must establish some form of balance; defenses are virtually ignoring the run, letting their defensive tackles take care of anything inside, while the linebackers play pass.  So what do we do?

Run the draw out of shotgun, every single time we want to run.

All defenses are playing pass against us, all the time, as Jason Cole notes.  The running game is a joke.  So, as the West Coast offense would dictate, why don’t we pass to open up the run?  The recent Patriots game is a perfect example of this.  The first half, Peyton called runs for Donald Brown–and I still have no idea if he’s a decent runner or not–from under center, and if I recall correctly, he got 9 yards on 8 carries.  In the second half, we finally let him run out of the draw.  With linebackers watching Jacob Tamme* (sigh.  Dallas Clark, please come back) and the receivers in zone coverage, Brown carved through the holes that naturally opened from the pass rush.

*Tamme has certainly filled in very well in Clark’s absence, and he’s getting catches and yards.  But defenses are willing to let this happen.  No one is game-planning around Tamme the way the would Clark.  Bill Belichick has focused on eliminating Clark from the Colts’ offense as a distinct strategy; he didn’t need to do this in their most recent meeting.  This is one less wrinkle and thus one less opportunity for Peyton to expose a mismatch.

We don’t even bother with the I-formation anymore, and the Ace has gone by the wayside without Dallas Clark.  (Don’t get me started on Gijon Robinson.)  It’s time the offense owned up to the spread and forced the defense’s hand.

Offensive line. Stampede Blue breaks down four specific plays from the San Diego game that show how one small mistake in offensive line play can alter the play dramatically.  The Colts in recent years have focused on pass protection rather than run blocking.  This year’s line can do neither with any sustained success.  I thought this was the big off-season project, Mr. Polian?

Uh, injuries. Yes, I know, this has been beaten into the ground.  Everyone knows about the injuries.  But my guess is they affect our play, particularly on offense, in a greater sense than just “this guy is slower/smaller/stupider than our starter.”

A full set of healthy skill players plays into the single greatest strength of our team–Peyton’s mind.  With all starters on the field for our offense, Peyton can analyze the mismatch immediately and release the ball to the open player.  Also, it takes him about one series to assess the other team’s general defensive strategy; once he has processed that information, he can choose plays (or audible into better plays) based upon his shared recognition with his receivers (or running backs) of the holes that will naturally appear.  Peyton has with Wayne and Clark, and maybe even Addai, what he had with Marvin Harrison–an unspoken understanding of the right play at the right moment.

He spends hours in practice with his teammates perfecting hot routes and route options.  All that time with Collie and Clark is not time with Blair White or Jacob Tamme.  If these secondary players don’t read the field the way Peyton does, you see incompletions or interceptions.  To accommodate for this, Peyton has simplified the already-vanilla playbook.  (Burnett was all over Wayne’s typical crossing route on that first pick, because he knows Peyton is always going to look to Wayne, his last main reliable receiver.)  Such a pared-down offense may have inspired the claims of offensive predictability.

*     *     *

Lucas Oil Stadium is a gorgeous monstrosity.  We walked and walked for what felt like ten minutes trying to find our seats–up stairs, ramps, more stairs, finally settling in our cozy corner.  On television the stadium appears cavernous, endless, stretching so far that the worst seats seem useless.  In person, a vast intimacy replaces the perceptions of enormity.  The crowd, a wide blanket of blue, swaddles the players on the field.

But the hundred yards of gridiron is still a hundred yards.  I’ve often rued the inability to see receiver routes develop on the horizontal television perspective.  Live, there is much more to see.  The snap of the ball, then the quarterback trots around, is there going to be a sack?, the deep ball finally lofting into the air toward a streaking runner.  The drop by said receiver.    The interior of the stadium may shrink when you’re inside, but it takes a well-trained eye to focus on the minor aspects of the game–blocking, penalties, missed receivers.  If it weren’t for the giddily toxic atmosphere, television viewing might always be the preferable option.  Too often, I forgot to check out the video screens for a replay, though some plays didn’t require a second look for me to call bullshit (I’m looking at you, Eric Weddle.  And I no longer think you’re sexy, douchebag).

Two San Diego fans sat directly behind our group.  In their defense, they were polite and not obnoxious.    Either way, I thought, it’ll be nice having two people to heckle when we run up the scoreboard, right?

Of course, that was not to be.  In fact, it was the worst home loss of the Peyton Manning era–a great first game to attend.  But being there in person…everything felt a little bit different.  My mere presence in the stadium left me lingering in a euphoric state.  Did that pick really happen?  Whatever–it was right in front of me!  I booed on defense, shut my ass up on offense, even started an impromptu “Let’s!  Go!  Colts!” chant at one point in the first half (or was it the second?).  Did all the dirty work of a fan.  But the game went by in a blur.  The play clock just dwindled.  You know when you watch a game at home, and there is a commercial after virtually every significant play?  Touchdown, field goal, kickoff, punt, interception, whatever?  In person, those breaks last approximately two seconds.  I spent what would at home be a Prilosec commercial just checking out the digs at the Luke.

The first drive of the night was an immediate touchdown.  Everything went downhill from there.  My buzz was wearing off.  I did end up spending eight dollars on a Bud Light.  We coughed up the ball at every opportunity–interceptions, fumbles, whatever.  A hideous display.  Even though we stormed out of the stadium with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter–and yes, I booed!–I wasn’t too disappointed.  Yet.

We weren’t alone in leaving the stadium prematurely.  The somber sea of blue streamed out of the stadium entrance, a death march on South Street.  I whined and bickered with a close friend in the parking lot about fan protocol:  do you boo at home?  I contended yes when warranted, but I was a cranky half-drunk at the time.  Regardless, we had to swallow the loss.  Yes, 6-5 sucks.  Yes, the division race remained uncomfortably tight.  Yes, there is a chance we could not make the playoffs (gulp).  All very difficult for a newly crowned Real Football Fan to handle.

But, hey, whatever–I was there.

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