There are 2 minutes 39 seconds to go in Superbowl XLII. The New England Patriots stand on the verge of history. This is the New England Patriots who swept all before them on the way to an unprecedented 16-0 record for the season. This is the New England Patriots who’s offence, led by the imperious Tom Brady, future Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest Quarterback of his generation, has compiled a record numbver of points. This is the New England Patriots who’s fearsome defence has been hammering teams backwards all season and allowing the offence to strut its stuff. This is the New England Patriots who’s inevitable victory would confirm them as the greatest team in NFL history.
The New England Patriots are just 2 minures and 39 secords from victory, and standing in their way? The New York Giants, a team with a 10-6 record(10 wins and 6 defeats for those not versed in the terminology of American sport). Led by a Quarterback, Eli Manning who for a large part of his early career was derided as a poor version of his big brother Peyton, the true rival to Tom Brady.
They shouldnt even have been close, but they were, yet with 2:39 remaining they still had a mountain to climb. They were 14-10 down and stood on their own 17 yard line. Could they really drive the ball 83 yards down the field to score the touchdown they required to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy? Of course they could. Americans may not know who Roy of the Rovers is, but this was true Roy of the Rovers.
This tale tells us much about the culture of American sport. It wasnt seen as unfair that a team could dominate a season, clearly be the superior team, and yet end the season empty handed. That simply is the way it is. In many ways it wasn’t even particularly exceptional, its simply the norm.
Here in the UK there would have been outrage if Manchester United, having won the Premier League by 11 points, had then been denied the title as a result of a one off game (admittedly outrage diluted by their unpopularity). In America however things are done differently, all their major sports, MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL are decided by a final main event. In basketball for example the NBA championship has beenwon by the team with the best regular season record just twice in the last 10 seasons. This simply isnt seen as a problem.
When we view the end of season Fed-Ex Cup playoffs we must do so in this context. Last season when Brandt Snedeker wonthe Fed-Ex Cup and with it the bumper winners cheque, there was a widespread feeling that justice hadnt been done. Rory Mcilroy was, in the eyes of most UK golf fans the only deserving winner,denied his rightful prize by a contrived format that artificially generated suspense at a cost to the competitions integrity.
It is however, unfair to view the competition in this way. The Fed-Ex cup doesnt claim that its winner is the player of the year, the money list and the PGA Tours end of season awards will identify that individual.
In Europe of course we do things differently. We have an Order of Merit. It may have been rebranded as the Race to Dubai, there may even be a Fed-Ex Playoffs apeing final series of high stakes, big money events, but the format remains the same as it ever was. Every euro counts the same, whether it was won at the 1st or last event of the season. You can bet that the American golfing public, if they were paying attention, were left wondering where was the drama in a season finale where the ultimate victor had already been decided, as was the case last year. To them the inevitability of the thing would be every bit as bizzare as we found the circumstances that allowed Snedeker to win. To them there was no problem at all with Bill Haas winning the Fed-Ex Cup, despite entering the Tour Championship at 25th in the standings, and without a win all season.
You see the regular season, in all sports isn’t about identifying a victor. Its purpose is to whittle down the field, to identify a group, be it teams or individuals, who will progress to an end of season, winner take all showdown. So next time you think about the Fed-Ex Cup format, and consider bemoaning its unworthy winners, remember the giant killing Giants of New York, because they represent what US Sport is all about.