Bad raps are tough to shake, no matter how foolish they are
BY DAN LE BATARD dlebatard@MiamiHerald.com
Two weeks ago, undefeated Peyton Manning went into the toughest place to win in the NFL, against the league's best defense, and pulled out the game late against Denver. Last week, he went into New England's home and shredded Bill Belichick's defense while outplaying Tom Brady. Manning somehow did this with a team that can't run the ball or stop the run. But he's allegedly a choker.
Those weren't big games, see? They would have been immediately labeled big games, regular season or not, under only one condition: if Manning had lost them. Manning, the world's best quarterback, gets hit with just about the most damning label you can put on any athlete until he wins a Super Bowl: soft. Shrinking as a moment enlarges. Can't win the big one. It's just one exit ramp removed from ''coward,'' and it's as asinine as it is wrong, but we're comfortable doing this kind of unfair math all the time in sports.
MANNING JUST CAN'T WIN
It's literally a no-win proposition once you get the kind of rep that makes Manning football's Alex Rodriguez, just like it's a no-lose proposition if you get the kind of rep that makes Brady football's Derek Jeter. Brady threw four interceptions last week, including one against a bad defense on what could have and should have been the game-tying drive. But that will be erased from our minds in much the same way it would have been embedded there if Manning had been the one doing the botching. Manning's postseason numbers: 2,461 yards, 15 touchdowns, eight interceptions.
Brady's postseason numbers: 2,493 yards, 15 touchdowns, five interceptions.
But one QB had a defense, the other didn't, so one gets to be a three-time champion while the other is an alleged stat-padding loser, and we conveniently forget that Brady threw the 100-yard interception at Denver that ended New England's 2005 season.
Good or bad, once you are stamped, we'll pick and choose only the subsequent facts and evidence that reaffirm the stamping and ignore those that might dispute said stamping. Who remembers Manning throwing for 377 yards and five TDs in one playoff game and 457 yards and four TDs in another? Those were small playoff games, evidently, as if there were such a thing.
How many game-winning shots in a row would Dwyane Wade have to miss before we questioned his assassin streak? Heck, we're even willing to overlook that Wade, forever clutch now, missed the two free throws that would have iced the Finals because Miami got a bounce on a wide-open Jason Terry shot at the end, just like we overlook the bounce Manning didn't get when Mike Vanderjagt missed a field-goal attempt that would have helped the Colts tie champion Pittsburgh in last year's playoffs.
But at least Manning can erase his reputation, for good, by winning a Super Bowl. Just like Bill Cowher, Roger Clemens, Jim Boeheim, Mack Brown and a million others who ''couldn't win the big one,'' right up until the moment they did. Barry Bonds crumbled under pressure right up until producing eight homers and 27 walks in a single postseason. All the Buffalo Bills and Bill Buckner needed to be remembered differently was a single bounce.
But here's where a stigma gets bothersome if you are a fan of the University of Miami football program: No amount of winning can cure the negative reputation that already has been formed, obviously. Miami's rep has been earned, certainly, but it echoes in a way that makes you wonder how it ever will be changed, echoes so poisonous that national pontificators feel comfortable sharpening their knives and carving up the program even moments after a wailing mother in her son's UM jersey grieves the loss of her just-slain child.
Butch Davis and Larry Coker cleaned up this program, period. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, upon meeting Ed Reed, Jonathan Vilma, Andre Johnson and other classy, soft-spoken Hurricanes, has gone around for years telling people that their perception of UM is wrong. The Hurricanes went nearly four years without an arrest -- a staggering stat you will find nowhere in the top 25 -- but four years isn't enough to erase damage already done, evidently. One punch, one crime, one awful incident reaffirms preconceptions, strengthens them. And Coker somehow is viewed as having lost a win-at-all-costs program even in a year when he suspended his two best position players before the FSU game, one for missing a study hall.
How do you push against that? If four years can be erased in a moment? Buckner had 19 good years sabotaged in a flash, so it's part of the contract in sports. And UM fans, who embraced the bad-boy image once, will have to tolerate its repercussions -- that a fight between UM and Florida International resonates in a way that a South Carolina-Clemson brawl can't, that a rap song by the players makes national news in a way that Michigan's doesn't, and that a senseless murder this week becomes another chance to wonder if UM has lost its way.
This is what happens when you are marked. LeBron James, because of his reputation, doesn't incur the same wrath for walking away from a game early, as he did this week, as does Randy Moss. Same action, different reaction. Same action, different reputation. Jim Tressel wears a professorial sweater vest, so Maurice Clarett's behavior after leaving Ohio State somehow doesn't stain his school the way Jeremy Shockey's more benign clowning somehow stains Miami. A teammate can kill another at Baylor, with the coach lying to protect himself and his school, and it doesn't become a reflection on the program the way the senseless killing of Bryan Pata somehow became a referendum on UM in too many clouded eyes this week.
Peyton Manning can change his reputation by winning.
But what does Miami have to do?