Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

FJM-style takedown of the week

In Football, Long form on September 9, 2011 at 10:15 am

Long-time fans of CDH (ha!) will remember one of our inaugural posts examined a column from Kevin Van Valkenburg. Looking back on it, I wish I would have reworded some of those thoughts. Van Valkenburg, after all, is one of the better sportswriters in the Baltimore area. He’s thoughtful, well-researched and interesting. You never get the sense one of his columns was turned in simply because he had to fill 15-inches of copy that day (Plus he re-tweeted us. Never forget that, above all else, CDH is nothing but a bunch of shameless, shameless page-view whores).

Kevin Cowherd, Van Valkenburg’s colleague at the Sun, is none of those things. I could say more but, well, let’s just look at his most recent column, shall we. Full apologies go out to Fire Joe Morgan, a much-better three-named blog who does this much better than we could ever do.

Cowherd’s words are in italics:

In Baltimore, the land of the perpetually anxious,

Home of Reed the bold, Lewis the kind of stabby.

Ravens fans are damp with the usual flop sweat as the season opener against the Steelers approaches.

Putting aside the kenning used by a Norse-poet for a second, what he has done here has set up a conceit. Ravens fans are nervous about next Sunday. Damp nervous.

Also as usual, people in this town are ascribing all sorts of Armageddon-like significance to the game.

A little condescending, but we get the point. No reason for Ravens fans to get all bent out of shape. Only one game, it’s a marathon not a sprint, blah, blah, blah. Now if you’ll excuse me as I spin a record on my 80’s-style turntable…

In this case, though, the fans might have a point.

/record scratch

Why, then, did you spend the first two paragraphs essentially mocking Ravens’ fans anxiety? This is a bullshit way of making an argument, the kind of thing a disinterested sixth-grade English teacher would put on an overhead transparency.

Imagine if news was written this way. “Panicked customers heedlessly rushed to the bank today. Why? They naively thought their money was gone. In other news, the Dow fell 1,000 points today.”

But okay Kevin. Tell me why fans should worry about this.

Because this is a huge game.

Why’s that?

And the reason is simple: the Steelers are in the Ravens’ heads, big-time.

Ah, yes. I imagine Joe Flacco pulls into his garage every night, walks past his gorgeous wife and all his worldly possessions, goes into his study and pours himself a brandy. Then he just sits there. In the dark. Sobbing at the thought that Dawan Landry couldn’t make a key goal-line tackle in week 13 last season.

And until the Ravens find a way to exorcise their black-and-gold demons — and a smackdown of the Steelers Sunday

The same disinterested English teacher just told Cowherd to cut the alliteration. Then she drank.

at M&T Bank Stadium would help — their run for a Super Bowl ring goes nowhere.

Or to the second round or better of the playoffs, you know like each of the last three years. That or nowhere.

If you doubt how much the Ravens obsess about their arch-rivals, you didn’t hear Terrell Suggs speak to the media Wednesday,

Or see his delightfully obscene T-Shirt, what with that cartoon Raven flipping the bird. What a delightfully puckish scamp Terrell is…

right before thunderstorms of biblical proportions drove practice inside at the Castle.

Remember this, because you may think Kevin’s trying a writerly attempt at foreshadowing here, perhaps comparing the deluge of rain to the deluge of pressure Joe Flacco might face Sunday (Hint: he’s not).

Suggs, the Ravens’ All-Pro outside linebacker, can come on like a buffoon sometimes. Or even like a space cadet.

Oooh, the classic literary technique of needless repetition. “To be or not to be, that is the question? An inquiry. My query. That one thing we’re trying to answer.”

But the fact is, he can also be one of the more thoughtful Ravens when he wants to be, when he’s not straining for laughs. When he was asked about the Steelers on Wednesday, Suggs grimaced and shook his head. No jokes this time.

/prepares for something profound.

“They spoiled our Super Bowl dream for two out of the last three years,” he said. “So we gotta switch that. It’s sickening and it ends our season every year and we lose to our division rival.

“I’m sick of it. I’m disgusted. I’m tired of having a sick feeling in my stomach.”

Seems a little like generic athlete-speak, but okay. At least Suggs gave some good material.

I know, I know. You wish the guy would open up a little. Tell us what he really thinks.

If you’ll excuse me, fuck the what!™ Again, Cowherd goes back to his signature style of rhetoric:

–      here’s A

–      take a look at A. Isn’t A interesting?

–      A is stupid. Take a look at B.

If Cowherd really thinks Suggs interesting, he shouldn’t belittle his sentiments. If he finds Suggs a parody, he shouldn’t attempt to parse meaning from his quotes. There’s no need to straddle the fence here, it’s sports not philosophy.

But Suggs will occasionally do that for you, bare his soul, before a big game.

Cowherd: Remember that last line where I just made fun of him for doing that? Forget it.

And when was the last time the Ravens had a big opening game like this, a Week 1 showdown in what has become one of the best rivalries in all of sports?

The Ravens opened up last season against the New York Jets in the first-ever game at the Jets’ new stadium. New York had made the AFC Championship game the year before. Ray Lewis and Rex Ryan spent most of the preseason sniping at each other and both teams were considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The game was on Monday Night Football and was the first game for Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the Ravens revamped offense.

So the correct answer is, last season. The Ravens had a big opening game like this last season.

“It’s the best in sports,” Suggs corrected, “because everything the fans want to see out of a rivalry is in this game. The hatred between the two teams. The physicality.”

Fine, fine.

Filler, filler.

Except there’s just one little problem with the rivalry: the Ravens have dropped six of the past eight games. And that includes that horror show in the divisional playoff round last January at Heinz Field, when the Ravens led 21-7 at halftime and blew the game, 31-24.

Very good Kevin. Now totally contradict your argument.

Sure, the games have been close. In five of the last eight, just three points separated the winner and loser. In another game, the difference was four points.

But the fact is, it’s the Steelers who have dominated the rivalry in recent years.

A similar analogy: Kennedy owned Nixon in the 1960 election. Yet Nixon only lost by about .1 percent of the popular vote. Still, Kennedy totally kicked Nixon’s ass.

It’s the Steelers who have found a way to win when they needed to. It’s the Steelers who made the big plays when they counted most.

It’s the Cowherd who knows how to repackage the same thought in two succeeding sentences in order to fill up space.

And the Ravens know it. And it eats at them like a slow acid drip in the gut.

It’s funny, though. You talk to some of the Ravens, and they try to downplay how much losing to the Steelers haunts them.

They give you all this stuff about how great the rivalry is, and how much they respect the Steelers, and how much they enjoy playing against them.

“It’s almost like my entire conceit is some pre-packaged pop psychology written to reinforce a lazy narrative to what is an important, but ultimately not super meaningful game. Or it could be that 53 people, an entire coaching staff and front office are lying to me.”

And, OK, I’m sure it’s all true.

God bless him, Kevin’s going with the lying theory.

But in the back of their minds, they know the Steelers have their number. And that until they beat Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup, until they find a way to overcome the voodoo that the great Steelers’ quarterback seems to throw at them time and again, the road to the Super Bowl is blocked like a tunnel cave-in.

Stare at that last sentence for a second. In fact, just stare at the last clause. Those are three different metaphors. Roethlisberger is a voodoo priestess, I guess, who is somehow throwing his religion at the Ravens. Never to fear though Ravens fans. Your team is behind a pile of rocks. Or in front of them. In short, I have no idea what’s going on here.

The Ravens seemed to sense that as the thunderstorms roared through Owings Mills yesterday, even if it was only Suggs who articulated it.

The second mention of thunderstorms. It is never to be mentioned again in the column and is never connected to Cowherd’s argument. Either this is some Faulkner-esque symbolism typical of Cowherd’s writing, or it’s just damn lazy. I vote lazy.

“At the end of the day,” said Ray Rice, the gritty running back, “it’s not the end of the world, a loss in Week 1. But at the same time, if you kick your season off with a win, you get your confidence going for the rest of the year.”

The little man was right, of course.

Ho,ho. Quite a jape, the little man. It’s like something Grantland Rice would have written. If he had spent the night before huffing paint and getting repeatedly kicked in the head by a horse.

But kick off your season with a win over the Steelers and your confidence red-lines all that much more.

That’s why it was T-Sizzle’s message that seemed to resonate the loudest.

New season, he seemed to be saying. New Ravens team. Put it to the Steelers right away, this Sunday, in front of a sell-out crowd at the Bank.

Ready for the big finish.

Get rid of the demons — at least for now.

He did it! A-A-B. Analysis, synthesis and, as if out of nowhere, contradictory fact which completely changes the argument. Of course the demons are temporary. If the Ravens could chase their “demons” away forever with a win Sunday, he couldn’t turn in this tripe a couple months from now when he’s out of ideas for a column.

In summary, this doesn’t bother me too much. I know by now pretty much what to expect when reading a Kevin Cowherd column. Still, maybe this better explains why Van Valkenburg’s Flacco statements stuck with me so much. I really like Van Valkenburg as a writer and thought he was better than that.

I guess that’s the takeaway here. Eight hundred words from Kevin Cowherd and all I come away thinking is, Kevin Van Valkenburg is much, much better than that.


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