North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

The January Swoon/Super Bowl XL

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It was the worst streak for the Maple Leafs of Toronto for this millennium – they dropped eight games in a row (they’ve since won one out of two games, making it a 1-9 record for their last ten games) – it was almost a vicious flashback to the recent dark ages for the Leafs, when they played in a decrepit arena called “The Gardens” and were captained by a man named Vaive…

When a team loses big games once or twice, the general idea is that the team has just hit a “skid”. If the team continues to lose a few more games, then it’s a losing streak. But if the team still continues to lose, like the Maple Leafs in question, it puts them in a special category – the same one that Columbus is in this year or that Ottawa was in back in the mid 90’s – The Swoon.

It comes on slowly and almost unknowingly – indeed, you never know that it’s here until it’s too late – but once it arrives, you’ll know it, baby. Children will be openly weeping in the stands, fans will be burning jerseys in the parking lot and the radio airwaves will be filled with angry, screaming callers, all demanding a pound of flesh from the management, the captain, the goalie – it doesn’t matter who, really, just so long as somebody pays in blood. Don’t believe me? Just ask any fan of the Philadelphia Eagles – they hung out Terrell Owens, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid to dry this year as soon as the team hit the Swoon.

Yes, as soon as a team – especially one like the fan base that the Leafs have – hits the swoon, fans immediately have two reactions:
– They begin to refer to the team as “They” (as in “They lost on us again”), as opposed to when the team is winning, which is when the team is referred to as “we” (As in “We won again, eh?)
– They begin to froth at the mouth, screaming, swearing and shaking uncontrollably while in the midst of a rage against the team they loved to much, just weeks before, blaming each and every member of the team (including employees of the team – such as the popcorn maker, the guy who operates the skate-sharpening machine and the guy who changes light bulbs on the overhead scoreboard)

This is why the team has been so quiet recently, whereas that other winter Toronto team (The Raptors of the NBA) has been so loud – the Leaf fans might want Pat Quinn, Ed Belfour or Mats Sundin out of the team (indeed, maybe even out of the country), but they could never face a reality of the Leafs doing so: It would be akin to suicide at this point in the year, with a potential playoff spot (the #8 seed) up for grabs – and besides, what if they blame the wrong person?

The Raptors know that they can get away with their changes – their former GM, Rob Babcock, publicly denounced the team during the pre-season (Saying that the team was going to be worse then their 33 and 49 record), made the basketball equivalent of the Munich Pact with the New Jersey Nets/Miami Heat (when the Raptors essentially traded away Vince Carter for two nobodies and had to pay $30 million on top for the privilege of doing so) and drafted Rafael Araujo – who has proven, despite occasional flashes of greatness (mostly in the preseason, unfortunately) to be one of the biggest flops in the NBA – he almost certainly is one of, if not the, reason that the Raptors have not made the postseason in his tenure.

But with the Leafs it’s not that easy to blame someone – after all, this swoon is not the cause of any one single player: Mats Sundin, Tie Domi and Jeff O’Neill are under-performing. Ed Belfour’s goaltending is shaky at best. The Leafs defence is stretched dangerously thin – relying almost completely on Bryan McCabe. Their GM, John Ferguson Jr., let Brian Leetch go on the off season and passed on signing Curtis Joseph – they’re now having career years – and didn’t buy out contracts of underachievers as Ed Belfour or Nik Andropov. The Leafs failure is not the result of one single person – it’s the result of many different failures. None of them were major – but all the small mistakes are adding up quickly.

From their reliance on getting veteran players in Free Agency and from trades, to a steady flow of talent away from Toronto’s blue line to all their major players either underachieving (Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour, Jason Allison) or being sidelined with injury (Eric Lindros, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker) – the Leafs, as a whole, are to blame for this Mid-Season Swoon.

Even so, the Leafs have a steady core of rookie and prospective players: Both Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen are enjoying great seasons, while players like Justin Pogge will provide a bright future for the Leafs in a few years – right now, this is the major distinction from the other Leaf teams in years past – all too often, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment was only too keen to trade away young players for already proven – and aged – talent. This is how Toronto ended up with Doug Gilmour, Brian Leetch or Wendel Clark in recent years – and look where they’ve taken the team.

Besides, it’s not even halfway through the season – at least wait until the Olympics are over before we worry about the Playoffs.

Super Bowl Sunday predictions:

Seattle Seahawks vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Vegas Line: Steelers –4)
My pick: Pittsburgh

Not only does Big Ben look more and more like one of the greatest quarterbacks in the league, the Steelers are looking stellar: they’ve upset three teams in the playoffs so far, all games that they were supposed to have no chance in, to get here… and with a week off, the team should be rested enough to play at their fullest.

Seattle, on the other hand, has Shaun Alexander; the most explosive running back in the league – but is playing a defence that has only allowed one 100yd runner in this postseason, is ranked 3rd overall against the run and will utilize a 3-4 defence (Seattle lost their last game against a team that used a similar defencive scheme [13-10 vs. Dallas]) – which should diminish the chances that Alexander will get. If nothing else, this game will show Alexander for what he is – either a MVP level back that can carry his team to victory or a running back that has succeeded in a easy division…

We can’t forget the intangibles either: Jerome Bettis is from Detroit and many Steeler fans are making the trip up to Detroit for the game (whereas many Seattle fans will be sitting at home, watching the ABC-TV feed) – this will make this game almost a home-field advantage for the Steelers. On the other hand, though, the Steelers have had a week off and are the favorites: The adrenaline from their 3-0 run through the postseason could have worn off by now and they’re used to playing against the crowd, against the Vegas Casinos and against, seemingly, all odds; but now that they have all the advantages in their favor, will they be able to work up the same drive and stamina that they needed against the favorites? If they can, the game is all but theirs. If not, then the game’s victor suddenly becomes uncertain and the desperate gamblers in Vegas will be hoping that the Steelers at least cover the spread.

One thing is for sure – this will continue the trend of great Super Bowls that we’ve had since 2000. Look for this game to show up in the wee hours on Classic Sports in a few years, okay?


Written by M.

February 3, 2006 at 11:14 pm

Posted in football, NFL, playoffs

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