Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Arkansas football, the weight of perfection, and grace

Last night, I (like all good crazy Arkansas football fans) watched my beloved Razorbacks play in their first ever BCS bowl. It was a great matchup--Arkansas, with our top-notch passing offense and future NFL first-round pick Ryan Mallett--against Ohio State and their #2 ranked pass defense.

Both teams came in with a tremendous amount of fan-imposed "weight". Ohio State has been one of the best programs in football, and yet they had a major 'monkey' on their backs--they were 0-9 all time against the SEC in BCS games. Arkansas had a history of underperforming in bowl games, and was now on the biggest stage: the Sugar Bowl (essentially a home game, being in New Orleans).

Going into the game, it was clear that Arkansas was insanely nervous. They were tight. Receivers dropped at least three likely touchdown passes, and another two or three long plays on third down. Arkansas was dominated by the Ohio State defensive line, and the Razorbacks' linemen racked up penalty after penalty.

They were clearly struggling under the weight of delivering this big win. By the second quarter, Arkansas was down 28-7. They had to scramble at the end of the half and took a huge play from Mallett to get to 28-10.

Then, in the second half, Arkansas started playing like Arkansas. Receivers started catching Mallett's passes. All of a sudden, Arkansas was on a roll: with two minutes left in the game, the Hogs had closed the gap to 31-26, and been a dominant team ever since halftime.

Who was leading the charge? Mallett. He was throwing darts and lasers. Most of his poor plays were due to the pocket collapsing. Most of his incompletions were due to receivers dropping balls or having to throw it away because the offensive line couldn't block. He and running back Knile Davis were really the only two solid players in a sea of nervous Hogs. So when the Hogs calmed down at half, Mallett led them back to within scoring range.

With a minute left to go in the game, Ohio State's punt is blocked. The Hogs--who had been basically unstoppable for the second half--had the ball, first down, in the red zone, with plenty of time. I would have put our odds of winning at 70% or higher.

The first play...the pass was dropped. The second play...Mallett is flushed and dumps to a close receiver. The OSU defensive end reads the play perfectly, makes a great move and a great interception. Game over.

An amazing game to watch. A big disappointment for me, and all Hog fans.

What inspired this post, however, was the post-game reaction in "Hog Nation". Facebook, call-in shows, friends...a huge percentage of fans just flat-out blame Mallett. The interception was said to tarnish his legacy. People said they couldn't wait for him to turn pro so that they could move on to the 'smarter' quarterback, the backup Tyler Wilson.

Now in my opinion, this is all absurd. Mallett is the greatest quarterback the Hogs have ever had, or likely will have. He will have a top-10 arm in the NFL the minute he is drafted. He works hard, he plays with passion, he keeps his nose (relatively) clean. Since coming to Arkansas and playing the best competition in football (the SEC), he has a very strong 61% completion percentage, led the country in plays of 25 or more yards, averaged more than 3600 yards per year, a ridiculous 15 yards per pass attempt, and threw 60 TDs versus only 18 INTs--3.33 TDs per INT, a very nice number for any quarterback, let alone a gunslinger. He has been simply incredible. This year, he led us to a better bowl than we have been in for at least three decades and arguably one of the top 5 or 10 seasons in the 100+ year history of the football program.

But that is not good enough. Not for Razorback fans. No, we demand perfection. Regardless of the fact that Mallett did things that no one else has done, people hold him to an impossibly high standard. We are always disappointed, no matter what. He would have had to go 13-0, and never throw a pick, and get no help, to meet people's expectations.

And you know what? Everyone else is the same. OSU fans are notoriously grumpy about their coach, Tressel. He has made them a powerhouse, but they don't win EVERY year, so that upsets them. The streets of football are littered with former 'genius' coaches who all of a sudden 'lost their touch' when their winning percentage dropped below 80%. The same is true for players.

It is a great example of why we in America have such a hard time with Christ's Gospel. Christ preaches a Gospel that says that our acceptance and value is not based upon the actions that we take, but upon our relationship with Him. Our value is not in our merit, but in His love. We are lovely, because He loves us. That is grace.

But for all our talk of America as a Christian nation, grace is a decidedly anti-American-dream concept. We demand perfection in others that we cannot attain in ourselves. We hold people to impossible standards, and then snidely deride them for every mistake.

Thus does Ryan Mallett get a bad name with Hog fans, undeservedly. The same with OSU and their (former) belief that they couldn't win the big game against an SEC team.

It is simply more natural, easier, to base our worth on achievements and perfection. Because then we had something to do with it. Oh, true, we Protestants will use semantics to make ourselves feel that we aren't still imposing the Law. We will say things like, "We fight the good fight and struggle every day to vanquish our enemy, the carnal man." We say things like, "You don't have to do this to be saved by God, but if you act badly you will enter heaven by the skin of your teeth". We say things like, "I don't want to live on the wrong side of the tracks in heaven." Or, "Don't you want to hear Jesus call you a 'good and faithful servant?'" Why do we do these things? Because we are acheivement-based in our culture. We want to define our value by our achievements. And we hear verses like, "Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect", take them out of context, and use them as a bludgeon to force the Law back into Christianity.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Christianity is rest. It is freedom. It is liberty from sin. As Luther once pointed out, the reason that we should do good works has nothing at all to do with our standing before God--we stand before God clean and pure, because He is holy and loved us. Not because of what we do, but because of who we are. We should do good works, Luther says, because the cleaner our body and soul are from vice, the better we can be prepared to hear from and focus on Christ in this lifetime. But it is of no impact whatsoever in determining the value of our souls.

Thank God that He is not a "fan" of us like we are fans of our sports teams.

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