Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flying Speed

Of the few blog pals I have left, only IOZ writes as if blogging still matters. Granted, he's much younger than me, so his energy level surpasses mine. And I'm happy to see his stuff linked to and praised by Jim Wolcott at Vanity Fair. I trust that IOZ's true energies are focused on his fiction, and that soon we'll see the first of many novels. If IOZ can animate a dying form like blogs, then imagine the life he'll inject into dead wood.

IOZ exhibits fine taste in many areas, but his choice in football teams is baffling. The Pittsburgh Steelers are an unimaginative franchise, a rigid specimen of the Rooney family, a phony blue collar distraction for rust belt survivors. That IOZ is a Steel Town native makes his allegiance even more unattractive, for what's worse than provincialism? I'm sorry, but IOZ can do much better than the Steelers.

Normally, I would overlook such lapses in a friend. But since his Steelers are playing my New York Jets in the AFC Championship, there's no avoiding it. So let me lay it out there.

The NFL-AFL merger in 1970 was the best thing to happen to the Steelers. Until the AFL came along, Pittsburgh was a football backwater, a professional dead end. They couldn't compete with the Giants, Packers, and Bears; not even expansion helped the Steelers. Within a few years of their creation, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings surpassed the Steelers, making the playoffs, and in Minnesota's case, the Super Bowl, though they lost to the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs. It wasn't until the AFL forced the older league to the table that the Steelers had any hope of on-field success.

Though loyal to the American Football League, the most influential sports alternative other than baseball's American League, I'm not blind to its weaknesses. Even by 1970, a decade into the project, many AFL teams were not on the same plane as their older NFL cousins, and this showed once inter-league play began.

In order to level out the new conferences, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had to bribe the Colts, the Browns, and the Steelers to move to the AFC. Like the rest of the established league, the owners of these teams despised the AFL for crashing their private party. How humiliating it must have been for Art Rooney to slum among the upstarts. Neither Wellington Mara nor George Halas would ever dream of such a move. But it was precisely what Pittsburgh needed.

Unlike the old NFL, the new AFC provided Pittsburgh room to strengthen and grow. They built a dominating team led by Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, and Mean Joe Greene, won four Super Bowls, cementing their legacy and importance. And who do the Steelers have to thank for these riches? The New York Jets, of course.

In 1965, when the Jets outbid the Cardinals (acting as a front for the Giants, who didn't want to be seen haggling against their hated in-town rival) for Alabama QB Joe Namath, paying him an unprecedented $400K upon signing, the NFL knew that the AFL was serious and there to stay. Soon after, merger talks began. When the Jets became the first AFL team to beat an NFL champ, the one-loss Colts, they further opened the door to subsequent Steelers success in the emerging conference. History may be a hallucination, but certain facts remain. Pittsburgh owes the Jets big time.

This is not to say that the Jets "deserve" to win on Sunday. They'll have to earn it like their two previous victories. But since Rex Ryan's arrival, the long-dormant Jets legacy is revived: back-to-back AFC Championship games against all doubters and naysayers. It's time to reclaim what Namath's Jets set in motion. Only IOZ's black and gold tourists stand in way.

Oh, one more thing -- thanks for Santonio Holmes. Here's to another Super Bowl MVP game.