In Part I, I discussed the basic format of sports films (and elements of what can be considered a “great” sports film), and several examples of this. I noted that the biggest objection to sports films, even ones universally acclaimed, is their lack of realism. In Part II, I gave one example of an actual sporting event that sounded an awful lot like something Hollywood might cook up.
That totally could’ve been a fluke, though, right? Well, I’m actually beginning to think the NFL has a clause in their Collective Bargaining Agreement that requires any crippling scandal to be negated by a feel-good upset in the playoffs.
This next game was one of those rare occasions in sports when we thought we knew the story, and then it changed after the fact. On January 14, 2012, we witnessed a pretty good upset with big, late plays that would fit adequately well in a sports movie as long as there was a larger storyline for it to fit into. On March 2, 2012, we got that storyline.
That day, the news broke that the NFL had evidence that the New Orleans Saints defensive players and coaches had participated in a bounty system, with the full knowledge of Head Coach Payton and General Manager Loomis. Defensive Coordinator Williams and somewhere between 22 and 27 players had maintained a pool of money to be paid to defensive players who deliberately injured targeted opposing players, including quarterbacks Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, and Alex Smith.
I’m not going to spend too much time talking about the scandal specifically, but I will say this: there is no question in my mind that if the Saints were a college team rather than a professional team, they would’ve been required to vacate their Super Bowl XLIV title. In the NCAA, it would be enough that they had participated in this heinous practice during their Super Bowl season. What should put it over the top, even in the NFL, is that they were probably in that Super Bowl because of this practice.
Everyone remembers how the 2009-10 NFC Championship ended: with Brett Favre throwing a baffling interception to end the game. Now, I’m not a Brett Favre fan (quite the opposite), and that was hardly the first time Brett Favre had made a mental error like that, but let’s examine some of the factors that might’ve led to that particular interception.
During and after the game, much was made of the fact that Brett Favre could barely walk because of the punishing hits he had received from the New Orleans Saints defenders. Yes, football is a violent sport, but remember: Brett Favre was specifically named as one of the players the Saints had a bounty on, and if those hits were a result of players deliberately trying to injure him, it changes everything.
Running the football was clearly a better option in that situation, as Favre would’ve had the opening to run to well within field goal range to win the game. But Favre’s mobility was clearly severely impaired. Not only that, when you realize the defenders are hitting you much harder than usual, suppose you even have an inkling that they’re deliberately trying to hurt you… do you want to take another hit, or do you want to get rid of the football?
Up until Bountygate, Spygate was the worst sports scandal of my lifetime. It was worse than performance-enhancing drugs, because it jeopardized the competitive integrity of the entire sport, and may have swung no less than three Super Bowls. If it weren’t for the Patriots’ unfair advantage, who’s to say that the Indianapolis Colts aren’t the team of the decade in the 2000s instead of the Patriots? I don’t think anyone can, especially since the sort of cheating Belichick was doing works best against teams you play often.
Bountygate was worse. True, it wasn’t actually cheating. But words are insufficient to adequately express my disgust with what the Saints did. They attempted to deliberately endanger the health and well being of other human beings in order to win football games. Let me repeat that: to win football games. Don’t tell me football is a violent sport. I know that. But there’s a difference between a violent sport and deliberately attempting to injure someone. I’ve actually been extremely disappointed with how some sports journalists I otherwise respect are reacting to this.
The most chilling piece of evidence that’s come out is an audio recording of Defensive Coordinator Williams’ locker room speech prior to the NFC Playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and the San Francisco 49ers. In this recording, Williams is heard giving specific instructions as to which 49ers players to injure, and how to injure them. He instructs his players to concuss quarterback Alex Smith, running back Frank Gore, and kick returner Kyle Williams, to tear receiver Michael Crabtree’s ACL, and to injure tight end Vernon Davis’s ankles.
Well, they didn’t succeed. And the course of the game would provide a stirring rebuke.
If I’m making a film about this? It starts with a montage about the Saints and 49ers’ respective regular seasons. In between montages of game footage and journalists’ reactions (with a heavy emphasis on Alex Smith’s drastic improvement and Drew Brees’ chase for Dan Marino’s record) you have footage of your actors interacting. You show Harbaugh’s relationship with Smith, patting him on the back and congratulating him on the year he’s having. You undercut the stories about Brees’ record chase with quiet, suspicious conversations between General Manager Loomis and Head Coach Payton.
Your pregame buildup? Williams’ speech, obviously. And you show Head Coach Payton in the background, seeing it happen and doing nothing about it.
The game started out in shocking fashion. The 49ers stunned the Saints by jumping out to a huge early lead thanks to a lot of turnovers. However, fairly early in the game the tone shifted dramatically. The Saints defense was able to shut down the 49ers offense, and there was a clear momentum shift even before the Saints started to catch up.
Use that. That’s great material for a sudden tonal shift. Emphasize every big hit, show Williams’ reactions (definitely play those up). Maybe show some of his players being a little uncomfortable when he pats them on the back if evidence ever comes out that not every player bought into this. You see how this practically writes itself?
With the 49ers desperately clinging to their advantage with the offense playing inconsistently at best, the Saints finally took the lead in the 4th quarter on a Drew Brees touchdown pass, making the score 24-23. With 4 minutes left to play Alex Smith, the quarterback who everyone had so little faith in, needed to win the game for the 49ers. Their offense had been so ineffective all game that it felt like they suddenly had an impossible mountain to climb.
Instead, Smith threw a 37-yard bomb to Vernon Davis to put his team at the 28-yard line. And then, Smith took the ball himself on a designed quarterback run for a 28-yard touchdown. The crowd went absolutely nuts.
Their jubilation was short-lived, however, as Drew Brees threw a 66-yard touchdown and two-point conversion to give the Saints a 32-29 lead with 1:37 to play. Everyone sighed in disappointment. There was absolutely no way that Alex Smith was going to be able to engineer a comeback drive twice in a game like this.
And then he did.
After two quick completions, Smith threw a 47-yard bomb to (who else?) Vernon Davis, and the 49ers had the ball in the red zone. One more completion moved them up to the 14-yard-line, where Smith spiked the ball to stop the clock with 14 seconds left.
I’ll just let the 49ers radio announcers tell you what happened next.
“Smith in the [shot]gun with Gore on his left hip. Third down, Alex takes the snap, Alex looking–” “He’s got him!!” “–on the post!! And it’s–!!” “HE’S GOT IT!!!!” “CAUGHT!!! TOUCHDOWN!!!! TOUCHDOWN, 49ERS!!!!!!!!! Vernon Davis with the PLAY OF HIS LIFE! Alex Smith with the PLAY OF HIS LIFE!!! And the 49ers are 9 seconds away from playing for the NFC Championship!”
Okay, wow. Even without the context provided by later revelations, I just couldn’t turn that broadcast off while the 49ers and their fans celebrated their huge win. I felt suffused with a sort of warmth that only other huge sports fans can really entirely relate to. With the larger context? Forget it. This is one of my Top 5 sports moments ever, and it didn’t involve any Chicago teams. Just unbelievable.
And you want to know the best part? Not only was that not the best sports-movie-like moment I’ve ever seen, it wasn’t even the best sports-movie-like moment of 2012. I saved the best for last.
Concluded in Part IV.