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February 5, 2007

Welcome to sports hell
by Larry Mahnken

With the Super Bowl over, sports in America are pretty much dead for a month. Pitchers and catcher report in a couple of weeks, but that's not really exciting. There's the NBA and NCAA Basketball, but the games in February are meaningless for all but a few teams, for whom they are borderline meaningless. If Tiger plays in a PGA event, that's interesting -- until he fails to win -- but then, golf is still a niche sport.

Bleh. Until exhibition games start, and "March Madness" starts in the NCAAs, sports is gonna suck for a little while.

Last night's Super Bowl outcome did make me think of something: Alex Rodriguez. The media has played up the "A-Rod is a choker" angle so much for the past three seasons that it's become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He was a fine clutch and postseason performer before he came to NY, he was fine in the postseason in 2004, very good in the clutch in 2005, and then... well, he had struggles. But the storyline is that he's ALWAYS struggled, when it's just not true.

So it has been for Peyton Manning. He's been the best quarterback in the NFL for years, but writers love to worship at the altar of Brady, because he had the rings, and the Patriots beat up on the Colts. Manning is A-Rod, Brady is Jeter. Though to be fair, Brady is a lot closer in ability to Manning than Jeter is to A-Rod, but in both cases, the media has considered the wrong one to be "more valuable".

You've heard for years that Manning "can't" win the big game, that he didn't have what it takes, etc., etc. You've heard that about Rodriguez, too. Well, in the AFC Championship game, after a tough start, Manning was brilliant when the team needed him the most, and carried them to the Super Bowl. Again last night, he was awful on the first possession, then spectacular the rest of the game, bringing the team back from an 8 point deficit to win the title.

Manning didn't suddenly become clutch sometime in the second quarter of the AFC Championship. He didn't suddenly become capable of doing all these things that people said he couldn't do for years. He was capable of doing these things all along. He just didn't do them until 2006.

What you'll hear now is how Manning has proven himself to be a big-game quarterback. What you won't hear ANYONE say is that they were wrong all along. Because they were.

You'll see analysts -- professional and amateur -- use results to support the opinions they had before the fact, a confirmation that they were right on the mark. But you won't see them use results like last night as a confirmation that they were wrong to begin with. Which is, I guess, human nature. But it's still stupid, and wrong.

Last night's title and MVP for Peyton Manning didn't prove he's a clutch performer. The 2005 and 2006 ALDS's didn't prove A-Rod is an unclutch performer. They're just samples of data, surrounded by noise. Manning's ring does, however, prove one thing: he's capable of coming through in the biggest situations, he does have what it takes. And everyone who said he didn't was wrong.

It's reasonable to think that eventually A-Rod will get his ring, though he might not. It's probable that, given how many more opportunities he's likely to get with the Yankees, that he'll have a HUGE postseason series that will be impossible to dismiss, even if it doesn't ultimately end up with a championship. But neither of those things will change who A-Rod is and what he's capable of. A man can't win a championship by himself.

Be fair to A-Rod. It's fine to say what he has and hasn't done, but if you're going to make pronouncements about what he's capable of, be man enough to admit you were wrong all along when he proves it.