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Playoff Dispatches: Coda

I am a huge fan of Sunday Morning Quarterback. I agree with what Orson Swindle said on Tuesday night . . . that, no matter how much credit we give SMQ, it ain't enough. I have argued that Myles Brand should be replaced by SMQ and I stand by that position.

That said, I find it necessary to add an addendum to SMQ's and my recent playoff debate, in light of his subsequent observations, to which I have added emphasis:

[W]hat is with this sad play-in game? As a pair of automatic qualifiers, Niagara and Florida A&M were guaranteed positions in the national tournament by virtue of their respective conference championships. Yet there they were Wednesday, still pathetically vying to get in when each had already met the supposed requirement. Florida A&M, which lost, now will not have its promised spot among the field of 64, and Niagara has already had to win an extra game that cut into its rest, travel and preparation time for Kansas on Friday. This game must be the single most skewed, nonsensical event in at least college sports (deciding outcomes by "shootout" in international soccer and the NHL might make less sense in the broader realm, but even intramural Afghani goat head polo demonstrates a certain economy).

Putting in at-large contenders who have failed to meet automatic entry requirements would be an improvement if the play-in game is actually necessary (maybe they'll consider this for the additional play-ins certain to be added later), but the existence of a play-in game is fundamentally unfair - to argue the teams are likely to immediately lose in the tournament anyway is to invalidate the point of the tournament. If a team that's already played 30 games has to win another to prove its worth in the field, it shouldn't be in the field. Otherwise, in no way should it be subjected to a tougher standard, i.e. being forced to win one more game for a title than required of any other team in the field. This is bothersome in the NFL, too, but at least there more teams are subjected to the extra game and byes are determined by an objective standard (win-loss record) rather than some committee interested mainly in stocking the bracket with the most notable sixth- and seventh-place finishers it can find.

The size of the basketball tournament makes for an untenable comparison, but the residual bracket-watching excitement of March Madness is a definite catalyst for SMQ's staunch support for a I-A football playoff. The fundamental asset of a playoff remains the fact that every team is faced with meeting the same standard - in this case, winning six games - and it seems absurd and borderline cruel to mock two teams' already long chances by making that standard seven wins just for them. What an insulting feature.

Somewhere, Senator Blutarsky is smiling. As SMQ admits---and as no serious sports fan could deny---the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament undermines the fundamental argument underlying all playoff proposals (the equal opportunity of all contenders to compete for a national championship on the field) by requiring two supposed automatic entrants into the field to compete in a "play-in" game which, by definition, excludes one of them from the field. (So much for the idea that college football's "every game counts" mentality constitutes the most arbitrary and fickle of playoff formats.)

To his credit, SMQ acknowledges what Senator Blutarsky has long maintained: the expansion of a playoff field (and, hence, the dilution of the legitimacy of the end result) is inevitable. The N.F.L. and major league baseball now feature "wild card" teams---once again, the very nomenclature makes clear the mockery such squads' inclusion makes of the mission-critical notion that the eventual national champion necessarily will have at least a straightfaced claim to being the sport's best team---and the N.C.A.A. tournament's ridiculous play-in game is but a precursor to an eventual field of 68, with play-in games in every region.

Given the cognitive dissonance this inescapable reality induces even in conscientious playoff proponents like the universally-respected SMQ, we may take as a frank confession his admission that---despite the fact that the tournament's metastasizing bloat renders the most famous of intercollegiate playoff formats "sad," "pathetic," "skewed, nonsensical," "fundamentally unfair," "bothersome," "absurd," "borderline cruel," and "insulting" to an extent which "invalidate[s] the point of the tournament"---his "staunch support for a I-A football playoff" finds "a definite catalyst" in "the residual bracket-watching excitement of March Madness."

That is it. At the end of the day, that is at the heart of the matter. Playoffs are exciting. The first couple of days of the N.C.A.A. tournament provide an incessant thrill ride as we watch and wait to see when---when, not if---a No. 12 seed will upset a No. 5 seed, as always occurs, raising unavoidable questions about the quality of the tournament inputs and, consequently, about the validity of the tournament's output. ("Garbage in, garbage out," as they say. How can anyone claim that a dubious field with erroneous seeding produces a "true" champion? How can multiple wrongs make a right?)

Playoffs are about, and only about, entertainment. They provide ups and downs, twists and turns, shocks and surprises . . . rather like a horror film, a funhouse full of mirrors, or a roller coaster. They are wonderful exercises in escapism. Unfortunately, playoffs, unlike carnival rides and Freddy Krueger movies, purport to produce something real, something concrete and substantial and credible and definitive . . . namely, a true, undisputed national champion.

Regardless of whether he will acknowledge this explicitly, Sunday Morning Quarterback essentially has admitted as much by (a) devoting a pair of meaty paragraphs to the insoluble troubles which bedevil the N.C.A.A. tournament, (b) stipulating along the way that tournament fields expand inevitably and inexorably because they (like zygotes, suburban lawns, and the federal budget, to borrow P.J. O'Rourke's famous formulation) are designed to do nothing else but grow, (c) distinguishing the reality of the basketball tournament from the idea of a football playoff solely because they differ in size (after already having admitted that this distinction would be strictly temporary in nature), and (d) blithely ignoring problems he has already recognized because, golly, this whole thing sure is exciting.

It certainly is that . . . but it is little else. Emotional outbursts are exciting, but calm reflection is preferable. Knee-jerk reactions spike the adrenaline, but thoughtful deliberation is the wiser course. Tournaments, like the video games so often used to simulate them, create intense yet short-lived flare-ups of interest of the sort associated with one-hit wonders and New Hampshire primary victors; they are the stuff of youthful sugar highs, as airy and insubstantial as the cotton candy wisps that fuel their brief instants of exhilaration.

In the end, though, we are left with maturity and reality by the cold sober light of the morning after the night before . . . so, by all means, we should enjoy with child-like exuberance the bells and whistles, the gadgetry and shininess, the clangs and flashes of the N.C.A.A. tournament while these ephemera last, but, afterwards, it will be time to return to manly sanity.

When it was March, I spoke as a child, I reasoned as a child, and I behaved as a child, but, when it became Labor Day weekend, I put away childish things.

Go 'Dawgs!