My wife and I were in Phoenix for a wedding this past weekend but, belonging to the unlucky and unenviable class of humans known as “Vikings fans”, managed to find an appropriately townie, every-person’s-bar called the “Draw 10” off 202 in Tempe to watch the big Vikings vs. Packers playoff game. We should have known from the moment we walked in the door and saw some guy wearing a throwback #84 Randy Moss jersey that the football gods were feeling ambivalent about our chances. Just like Randy, you never know which version of our team will come out to play – the one that will dazzle us with superhuman acts of athleticism or the one that doesn’t feel like blocking on this particular night and only runs half its routes. Over ogre-sized plates of unholy local concoctions like mac ‘n cheese with pork and green chilies slathered over the top, we cautiously assessed our chances as “not good, but it could happen.” (As long-time Vikings fans, any faint flicker of optimism is quickly snuffed out by painful memories of things like Favre throwing a last-minute pick when ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS RUN 3 YARDS AND FALL DOWN TO SET UP THE GAME-WINNING FIELD GOAL. SERIOUSLY?)
Adding to our anxiousness (of course, because they are EVERYWHERE) were two rabid Packers fans just down the bar from us, grunting and bellowing their predictably extensive list of reasons they lost the last game to us – none of which ever seem to have anything to do with how crappy they played, mind you. Though they had executed the perfect game, it would seem from their analysis, the refs were both blind and involved in some widespread conspiracy, possibly funded by the Minnesota soybean industry, not only to eradicate Wisconsin cheese products from the face of the earth, but also to cheat the Packers out of another well-deserved victory. In what I thought was a magnanimous gesture of reconciliation and goodwill, I tilted my colossal dish of cheesy mac in their general direction to signal my sympathy for their cause, but no dice. These two were out for blood.
Beyond any conspiracy-fueled Cheesehead animosity, though, we did have some real cause for concern in the form of one Joe Webb, our backup quarterback who, despite having thrown exactly ZERO passes in a regular season game this year, was green-lighted just 90 minutes before the game due to Christian Ponder’s “sore elbow.” (Don’t get me started on this, please. Despite his strong propensity to throw the ball to the other team, Favre once jammed his own dislocated finger back into the socket and went back into the game without missing a single play. But yes, by all means Christian, take care of the owie on your elbow.) Despite our concerns, though, we were buoyed by the commentator chatter about how Joe’s presence would open up the magical world of the “read option”, thus rendering the Packers defense utterly stupefied and unable to decide whether to rush the quarterback or to hang back and wait to be unceremoniously flattened by Adrian Peterson. And there was Joe on the screen, looking ripped and confident, keeping it nice and loose for the prime-time cameras. Could it be possible? The first drive looked promising as Joe and AP one-two-punched their way down the field to a Blair Walsh field goal. Maybe, we thought. Just maybe.
Sadly, those 3 points were the last ones we would see until the waning moments of the 4th quarter and, by then, it was far too late to make up the 3 touchdown deficit we’d chalked up. The Packers would have their sweet revenge and the Vikings would bolster their reputation as one of the chokiest teams in the NFL. And then there was Joe Webb, who played one of the most epically terrible games in recent memory – the kind of game that, if you have an empathetic bone in your body, changed rapidly from frustrating to just plain uncomfortable, like watching your kid forget his lines in the school play. He really couldn’t have been much worse. He overthrew his receivers by 15 yards. He tossed the ball straight up in the air in an attempt to avoid being sacked. He dropped back in the pocket when he should have stepped up. He got picked off. He fumbled and groped his way through 4 quarters of truly, embarrassingly awful football.
As I was yelling “YOU SUCK, WEBB” at the TV screen for the 89th time, however, I started to feel a just a little bit bad. I mean, here was a guy who hadn’t taken a single snap all season, now expected to lead a, let’s face it, mediocre-at-best team through the Wild Card (at Lambeau, no less) and into the playoffs. It’s hard to understand that kind of pressure. I’m sitting here on the plane ride back home to Minnesota while I write this, imagining the flight attendant coming over the speaker and saying something like: “The pilot just developed a wicked case of carpal tunnel syndrome. Has anyone here ever used a flight simulator or played a video game where you had to fly an airplane? If so, can you please come up to the cockpit? We’re going to need you to land this thing.”
Before you get all mad at me, let me be the first to admit that it seems like a professional athlete making millions of dollars should be capable of actually playing the game for which he is getting (over) paid. But, just for a moment, imagine yourself as a kid, playing in your backyard and being your own announcer while you try to throw your football through the tire swing…it’s 4th and goal, there’s only three seconds left on the clock. A touchdown will send them to the Superbowl; anything else will send them home. He takes the snap and drops back. He’s got three receivers on the corners. Here comes the blitz! He spins and gets away! He scrambles. He throws. TOUCHDOWN! THE VIKINGS ARE GOING TO THE SUPERBOWL. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!!!
You know Joe did that, too, probably thousands of times, dreaming of getting his one shot on the big stage – his chance to be a hero. When he finally did, he failed. And not just by a hair either. He completely and very publicly collapsed under the pressure. In the annals of sports history, he won’t be celebrated as the most unlikely of heroes, but as a loser – someone who simply couldn’t hack it under the bright lights. Or even worse, he won’t be remembered at all – relegated to statistical anonymity somewhere in the archived files of the ESPN sports supercomputer.
In other words, it can’t be easy being Joe Webb right now.
Somewhere between hurling insults at the television and finishing my beer, it occurred to me just how scary it can be to find ourselves suddenly thrown in the spotlight, from the first time we’re called on to solve a math problem in front of the class to that oh-so-awkward rejection by your crush at the junior high dance in front of all your friends. I think a lot of us learn, early in life, to avoid additional opportunities for public embarrassment. But in our efforts to do so, we also leave a lot of our bigger dreams untried and unfulfilled. We learn to play small to avoid losing big.
According to Nielsen, Joe Webb crashed and burned in front of approximately 26 million people on Saturday night. I suspect, after a tough off-season, he’ll be back at it again, chasing another chance to prove to the world that he’s a real football player. It takes serious guts, regardless of the salary involved, to step back up and try again. Most of us wouldn’t do it unless we knew we’d succeed. But that’s not how we find out how strong we really are. That’s not how we grow.
So, while most people want to be like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rogers, count me out.
I’m going to try to be more like Joe.