As the ball slipped — trickled really — wide left of the goalposts the room at Finn McCools pub deflated like a ruptured weather balloon. The Saints were now 0-4; and even the most die-hard Saints fans admit that 0-4 is a heavy load to shoulder. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not this year. Not this team. Certainly not this fan base. Yet as Green Bay took the final knee on the neck of Saints fans everywhere, there was a palpable lugubriousness that wasn’t going to be easily slugged away over a few beers, the hometown Super Bowl receding like a ship’s mast on the horizon.
The previous day #3 LSU stumbled to a victory over lowly Towson and awoke yesterday to find themselves #4, unimpressively winning their way to obscurity in what became a strange and somewhat funereal weekend in Louisiana football. LSU started the preseason ranked #1, but a slow, steady accumulation of player dismissals, injuries, lackadaisical play, and uninspired wins has them #4 after five games. I’m not sure a team has ever fallen as many spots as LSU has without losing a game. Yet no one who’s watched this LSU team will mistake them for last year’s almost BCS champs.
There is plenty of blame to go around on both the Saints and LSU, and there are plenty of writers who will be discussing, analyzing, nitpicking, and postulating. The internet discussion boards that blow up after every game will remain blown up as fans try to dissect and rationalize what by now must seem more like autopsy than analysis. And of course, I have plenty of ideas too, but that’s not what interests me today. Besides, there are plenty of guys out there that do it better.
No, what I want to discuss is faith and pride and spirit: because oddly enough, as Hartley’s kick fell listlessly to the ground yesterday, and the collective spirit of the bar with it, I couldn’t help but look around the room with pride at the faith of fellow Saints fan convinced the comeback starts next week. Even through visible tears and forced smiles, there was faith that somehow this script will not continue to play out this way. And even if it does, this team, and this city have been through too much together… No bags, heads held high, WHO DAT!
Upriver in Baton Rouge the scene is more glum than imaginable for any 5-0 team. Once again this is a matter of faith, or lack thereof. Perhaps it’s the capricious nature of college football, with AP votes carrying almost as much weight as wins and loses. Or maybe the January 9th double cross, where Bama rose from the dead like Jason and eviscerated LSU and their gloriously meaningless Nov. 5th regular season win. To make matters worse, deep down inside there are few LSU fans that think their coach, Les Miles, can ever outmaneuver Alabama’s Nick Saban in a meaningful game. Only in the absence of Saban can LSU succeed in the minds of many, and as deep a resentment as there is for Saban, the resentment for Miles is deeper; and every botched play, questionable clock management decision, lackluster play call, and far-too-close win reinforces this image of the anti-Saban. Les Miles is probably the most hated winningest coach of all time. And when time ran out on Miles and LSU last Janurary 9th, I can honestly say, most of the LSU fans I spoke with had no faith LSU would win in the first place.
Being a fan is a much deeper communion than most would care to admit: at least being a real fan is. It opens up wounds that most would rather not deal with: inadequacies, fears, personal failures, unrequited love, and unfulfilled dreams. Those players aren’t just 12 men on a field. They are avatars. They are our shot at glory, at timelessness, and at redemption. Fans say “we” when it’s clearly “they.” But there is no they, because being a fan is confection and conflation and complete identification. It’s scary as hell.
And it manifests itself as faith. For Saints fans, it’s baptismal. It’s cleansing and renewing and always possible. It’s also defiant. Take our coach, our GM, our players: we will find a way. We’ll overcome fake refs and phony commissioners and we’ll scream out “Home Town Super Bowl” at the top of our lungs because we have to believe it because otherwise there’s nothing to believe in.
For LSU fans, it is an inversion of faith. If you never believe fully, you can never be fully hurt. As long as you can say “I told you so” the sting is somewhat mitigated. Last year when LSU fans thought they’d slain that dragon, I sensed that they were close to embracing their faith: but January 9th changed all that. It hardened their resolve and fueled their cynicism. Even at 5-0, everyone is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.
So while Saints fans may be deluded in their faith as much as LSU fans in their faithlessness, I’ll always stand on the side of those who think they can. Because winning is only fun when you admit to having something to lose.