The longest walks, it seems, are always after the most crushing defeats.
Such was the case in Miami on Feb. 7, 2010, as reporters and players alike shared space outside Sun Life Stadium in walking from the interview tent outside the venue to the locker room.
I had followed Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney out of the tent. He hobbled onto a golf cart to get a ride to a bus. He basically played on one good leg, had a one-handed sack of Drew Brees in the second quarter, but couldn’t stop the New Orleans Saints from winning Super Bowl XLIV 31-17.
As I turned to head to the locker room, center Jeff Saturday walked by. His head was down, an unforgettable image of utter dejection. Then he spotted me.
Saturday apologized for the Colts not getting it done. That blew me away.
I didn’t hesitate to respond, “Hey, you got me to two Super Bowls. I can never complain.” And I thanked him.
Three years removed from when he hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in this same stadium after Super Bowl XLI, should I have told one of the classiest athletes I’ve ever met that because he lost, nothing else mattered? Seriously?
That’s how too many are conditioned in today’s sports society. It’s win or else. If your team doesn’t get it done, they’ve accomplished nothing. There’s no middle ground.
That’s why it shouldn’t have come as any surprise when Wednesday offered another reminder about the existing climate. While a new Colts team was working out in an open mini-camp practice at Lucas Oil Stadium, the players focused on the future and evidently some other onlookers were consumed by the past.
Some people saw a “2014 AFC Finalist” banner hanging from the rafters, and that had people going bonkers on social media.
OK, I get that nobody wants to relive a 45-7 AFC Championship Game loss at New England last January. It was beyond ugly. And that’s before DeflateGate even gets mentioned.
Sure, it’s easy to criticize the Colts for hanging a banner that reminds everyone of a brutal conclusion to last season. But is that what this is really about?
Not really. It might be for some fans and media, but perhaps they just can’t see the big picture. They’re too ticked off to see it. And never will.
The Colts are about owner Jim Irsay. Nobody in Blue Nation is more proud and passionate of this team than the guy signing the checks. But he’s much more than the bank. Love him or hate him, Irsay’s competitive fire burns through his organization.
Make no mistake, he’s about winning Super Bowls. He reiterated his passion to the current Colts at midfield after the two-hour workout. Irsay always aspires for extended greatness.
That makes this banner somewhat of a puzzling reminder. Yeah, they weren’t great that day. But if you’re Irsay, does that mean everything should be blocked from memory?
The week before, the Colts stunned the NFL world by knocking off the Denver Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning in an AFC Divisional playoff game in the Mile High City. It’s one of the most impressive playoff victories in franchise history, possibly No. 2 behind the Colts rallying to beat those pain-in-the-butt Patriots in a memorable AFC Championship Game at the RCA Dome back in January of 2007.
If you’re Irsay, you must accept the good with the bad. You revel in the accomplishment of beating the Broncos, but are humbled by the 38-point blowout the next week at Foxborough, Mass.
Everyone dwells on “Super Bowl or bust,” but at some point there has to be a voice of reason. The Colts franchise has accomplished a lot in Indy, there have been so many great players to raise the annual level of expectation, and it’s grossly unfair to suggest that one banner demeans everything that happened last season, or every other year except one when the Super Bowl objective wasn’t achieved.
This isn’t exactly new, either. There are two other banners commemorating the AFC finalists from 1995 and 2003, too. But in today’s culture, a picture of the most recent banner has too many people scoffing, snicker and spitting mad.
As a journalist, the job requires sharing insight when the team wins or loses. We have a job to do either way. When this team falls short of expectations, realistic or not, many of us will take them to task for what didn’t work.
When the Colts beat the Bears in Miami, a memory for a lifetime, we shared their glory with fans and acknowledged there’s nothing sweeter to behold.
Some teams have never tasted that kind of success. They haven’t even got a whiff of it.
Since 1999, the Colts have an overall record including playoffs of 185-96, a winning percentage of .658. Do you think a few other NFL teams would love to have that track record?
The Detroit Lions have reached one conference championship game, a 31-point loss, in a Super Bowl era that began in 1967. The Jacksonville Jaguars have reached two conference championship games, both losses, in two decades. The Houston Texans have never made it to a conference title game in 13 years of existence.
The Colts haven’t won as many Super Bowls as Irsay had hoped, but they keep coming back with the same mission. And they’re still in the hunt, year after year. Anybody who has watched the promise of quarterback Andrew Luck evolve can’t tell me that the past three 11-win seasons have been a waste of time.
If you’re Irsay, you take pride in what has been accomplished. The banners are a reminder that the Colts aren’t chopped liver. And, yes, they’re also a reminder of what more could have been accomplished. And they’re a reminder of how the goal never changes.
If you’re Irsay, you are grateful for so many guys who put this team on the NFL map. Manning, Luck, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis. We’ve seen a lot of special talent over the years.
Should they have won more than one Super Bowl? That can be debated forever. Irsay thinks so. That’s why he’s reiterated the expectation that the team win multiple Super Bowls during the Luck era.
But that doesn’t mean the past can’t stand for something. It’s not meaningless.
Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age, but as I approach my 17th season of covering this team, the memories that will last a lifetime have made this an enriching ride.
It’s like I told Jeff Saturday. It’s been a rush, and I’m grateful. When I’m done tapping the keys some day, I won’t look back at a Super Bowl won and ignore a Super Bowl lost. I can’t forget the glory of a team shocking the world by winning in Denver, where a stadium practically painted in orange fell silent for three quarters except for continual “boos” in the second half. That sticks, even after another numbing trip to Foxborough a week later.
Forget the banner, or remember it. Everyone is entitled to think what they want.
But if you’re living your life applying a “win-or-else” mentality to everything, you’re setting yourself up for too much disappointment.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.