From The West Wing, Season Three, “Stirred”:
VICE-PRESIDENT HOYNES: I heard you had Caps tickets.
SAM: Yes, sir.
HOYNES: How was the game?
SAM: Not very good.
HOYNES: Have you ever seen a good hockey game?
HOYNES: Me neither. I love sports, I just can’t get next to hockey. See, I think Americans like to savor situations: One down, bottom of the ninth, one run game, first and third, left handed batter, right hand reliever, infield at double play depth, here’s the pitch. But scoring in hockey seems to come out of nowhere! The play-by-play guy is always shocked. “LePeiter passes to Huckenchuck who skates past the blue line. Huckenchuck, of course, was traded from Winnipeg for a case of Labatts after sitting out last season with–Oh my God, he scores!”
A warning for those who don’t care about football: Football blathering ahead!
In the Wild-Card weekend following the 1992 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills famously fell behind by 32 points, 35-3, to the Houston Oilers before coming back to eventually win the game in overtime, 41-38. The comeback was the greatest in NFL history…until just a few weeks ago, when the Minnesota Vikings fell behind 33-0 to the Indianapolis Colts before coming back to win, 39-36. So the Vikings now hold the record for the greatest NFL comeback of all time.
Well, obviously in one very key sense, yes, they do. The numbers don’t lie: a 33-point deficit is greater than a 32-point deficit. And much of the “debate” that followed as to whether this was really the greatest comeback of all time centered on Buffalo fans who just don’t want what’s probably their franchise’s greatest singular on-field accomplishment erased. That’s the problem with records like that: every record can be erased, or pushed to second place, eventually. Championships are forever, but records are transitory, and a record that stands for 30 years before being pushed to second place is still the second-place record. So yeah, I get it.
But…that’s a pretty starkly numerical way of looking at things, isn’t it?
You can’t escape numbers in sports. Numbers are bound up in sports. They are inescapable…probably because numbers are inescapable in life, but really, numbers are sometimes everything in sports. Tom Brady’s 7 Super Bowl rings, Nolan Ryan’s 7 no-hitters. Ted Williams, last guy to hit .400. The idea then shapes out that numbers, more than anything else, tell us everything about what happens on the field. I remember quoting Fox Mulder from The X-Files a while back, talking about how he can look up a fifty-year-old box score in a yellowing newspaper and know exactly what happened on the field that day, all because of the numbers captured in that box score.
I mean, he can, to a certain degree. But the numbers don’t tell everything.
You can’t look at a box score and tell how blue the sky was that day, or what it smelled like in the park because maybe the breeze was coming from the lake or the industrial park the other way (in Buffalo, with the cereal plants downtown, it often smells of Cheerios). A box score won’t tell you how scuffed up the first baseman’s jersey is after several close plays, or how the catcher is still trying to work off the gimpy ankle from that play at the plate last Tuesday night. The box score won’t tell you the crowd’s mood: Are they giddy and jubilant, or are they kind of grumblingly negative because the team’s having a rough season and they’re sarcastically cheering the guy hitting .197 who just managed to leg out a weak grounder safely to first?
The box score won’t tell you if the players are attacking an early season game with vigor, or if they are visibly just playing out the last few weeks of the schedule, mired in fifth place and just wanting nothing more than to go home and rest for about a month. The box score will tell you that a particular player homered in the sixth, but it won’t tell you that he was on a hot streak and he came up against a tiring pitcher who probably should have already been pulled and who had of late been surrendering homers to right-handed hitters at a surprising rate for a guy who, up to a few weeks before, had been almost unhittable.
Numbers are great and important and useful…but they are also a flattening force, a force that tends to flatten out story. A baseball player who collects more than 3000 career hits is almost guaranteed a spot in the Hall of Fame…but is that all that player does? All I really know about Robin Yount is that he hat 3000 hits in his career. That’s numbers: for me they reduce a Hall of Fame player to a guy who had roughly 150 hits a year over his 20-year career.
But, what if I ask a person who has been a Milwaukee Brewers fan their whole life, “Hey! Tell me about Robin Yount?” Then, I’m not going to hear about 3000 hits. Then, I’m going to hear stories.
Sport isn’t just numbers, it’s also stories. I think that’s why we follow sport so adamantly as a species–well, partly, anyway. I don’t want to discount numbers, after all. But numbers aren’t the whole story.
This suggests to me that there’s another kind of greatness at play here, when we talk about “Greatest Comebacks”: situational greatness, we can call it. Or storytelling greatness? The New England Patriots trailed the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 a few years back in the Super Bowl–and they came back to win it. That’s a 25-point comeback, still a full touchdown “less” than the Bills’ against the Oilers…but 25 points down in the Super Bowl? You have to give that some special consideration, I think, because comebacks just don’t happen in the Super Bowl. The previous record for biggest comeback in a Super Bowl had only been 10 points. That means something.
And it also means something that the Bills’ comeback against the Oilers was a playoff game, at home, after a season that had been a bit of a struggle, when the Bills were banged up and missing several starters (including their quarterback and running back), and had been beaten soundly just the week before by that very same Oilers team. The Vikings’ comeback? A regular season game, at home, relatively healthy, against one the worst teams in the NFL that built its lead on a pile of field goals. The box score will tell you the Vikings overcame the biggest numerical point deficit in an NFL game to date. The box score won’t tell you the other stuff, and the other stuff is what we talk about when we sit over a beer and discuss old sports memories.
So. Is the Vikings comeback the greatest in history? Numerically, yes. Absolutely. Thirty-three points is more than thirty-two points.
But I doubt as many people will still be talking about that game thirty years from now as are still talking about that game in January 1993 when a backup quarterback erased a 32-point deficit in a playoff game.
(Credit for West Wing quote. Disclaimer: I do not endorse the fictional Vice President’s opinion of hockey.)