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The Agony of Defeat

The inches in football are the difference between winning and losing; between living and dying.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Games like that are why I can't help but admire professional players.  As fans we can get caught up in our own travails in watching our team but it really can't compare to the anguish of spending your whole season, nay career, working towards this one moment in time only to see it end in utter devastation.

There's a cynical viewpoint that these players have millions of dollars, a great lifestyle, while playing a game for a living, and there's some truth to that I suppose, but I've always hated that view. It not only undermines what we like about sports but moreover just what it takes for players to reach this pinnacle, and worse, to be on the losing end, as all teams and players eventually endure.

All players have been there in some form or fashion, after all. Yesterday it was the Seahawks, but it was the Packers two weeks ago. The Ravens and Cowboys three weeks ago. The Patriots seven years ago when they lived out their David Tyree nightmare -- much as they nearly did again yesterday when Jermaine Kearse made that improbable catch to set Seattle up for a go-ahead touchdown.

Yes, these players get to play a game almost purely based on having uncommonly rare athletic talents and genetic makeup...but they also have to see the fruits of their labor come to an early screeching halt each year, not knowing if it is their last game in that uniform or perhaps even in their lifetime. They have to live or die with the result of the game.

The margin between winning or losing in this league we call the NFL is so ridiculously thin and yet the inches that separated a Ricardo Lockette game winning touchdown from a Malcolm Butler interception is now the basis for an almost endless amount of legacy-defining narrative.

I'm reminded of Al Pacino's speech in "Any Given Sunday", still one of the best sports movies for my money, and the way in which he captured the essence of this:


"You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small.
I mean one half step too late or too early, you don't quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast and you don't quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game, every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know when we add up all those inches, that's going to make the fucking difference between WINNING and LOSING.....between LIVING and DYING."

It's as true today as it was 15 years ago when the movie came out. Football boils down to these improbable inches and the players are the ones who have to see their entire product of their lives and efforts be defined by those inches. The rest of us move on, go back to our jobs, and if we had a rooting interest, certainly share some of that pain.

There will be plenty of praise heaped on the Patriots (despite the cheating scandal) while Pete Carroll, Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, all of the Seahawks, will be either ignored or worse, derided for failing to win a game decided by one play. It's a shame and it feels like the wrong thing to do in a game that boils down to such thin margins between great opponents. But it happens thusly every year.

It can't be easy to come off the field with calm dignity after throwing a game-ending interception in the Super Bowl, but Russell Wilson did it all the same. Pete Carroll did it as well, falling on the sword for his OC and team in the post-game, as a good leader does. Certainly all of us remember Flacco and Harbaugh doing it in 2011 when seemingly one player lost the game in yet what is at its core a team sport.

Surely many cynical fans were all too happy to see Richard Sherman's face in utter despair after the game-ending pick, but it's not an easy thing to actually be the gladiator in the arena, metaphorically living and dying on the inches of a single play.  Perhaps a few of us will yet remember that while the rest of the world castigates them for trying mightily and coming up short.