Never Bet on a Bird in the Playoffs

The had lost another playoff game — another Donovan McNabb disappointment, another sequence of baffling Andy Reid play calls. The regularity of their failures made it all seem like fate. A Cowboys fan, laughing in my direction, offered this gnomic bit of wisdom: “If there’s a wing — no ring!”

It took a while to ponder, but then I understood. Regrettably, it’s not about X’s and O’s, or which team drafted well or signed the highest-priced free agents. The secret of the N.F.L. is not calculus or Einstein theory (as the musings of Jon Gruden suggest). It is something more Seussian: teams in the bird family the .

My mind raced to refute this aphorism. Ah, the 2001 Ravens. Checkmate, Cowboys fan!

But the more I explored, the more it seemed true. The 2001 Ravens are the only fortunate fowl to have won the Super Bowl. They are the exception that proves the rule.

Discarding such ridiculous concerns as passing percentage and turnover ratio, and turning instead to the serious study of lexicology, well, the results are staggering.

N.F.L. team names can be placed in four categories: man, beast, bird and thing. For these purposes, the man category includes teams like the Buccaneers, 49ers, Giants, Patriots, Packers and Vikings; beasts include the Bears, Lions, Panthers, Jaguars, Bills and even ; the Seahawks and Cardinals are among the birds; and the Jets, Chargers and Browns are things.

(A digression: Yes, the Bills are named for Bill Cody, the Browns for Paul Brown. But who thinks of the Bills and does not picture a snorting tatanka barreling down the plain. And who can stare at the Browns’ orange helmets and not consider them a thing, in the abstract sense.)

Twenty-nine of the 45 Super Bowls have pitted man and beast, man and bird or man and thing. Man has won 23 of them, a 79 percent success rate. Surely it is no coincidence that when it comes to Super Bowls, beasts, birds and things draw the short stick.

To make such a contention in a place that is not a pub is like asserting the primacy of astrological truth at a Cal Tech reunion.

But the facts speak for themselves. Nine teams have made five or more Super Bowl appearances, of which only two (the Broncos and the Dolphins) are not in the man category. To diminish their accomplishment, the Broncos and the Dolphins are also the only teams of the nine with losing records in Super Bowls.

Of the four teams never to have gone to the big game, only one represents man (Texans); the remaining three (Lions, Jaguars and Browns) are beast or thing.

And some games, taken together, are like a football Guernica. The Bills — valiant representatives of the family of beasts — were struck down first by the Giants, then by the Redskins and twice by the Cowboys. The Patriots were victorious against beasts and bird: the Rams, Panthers and Eagles. The 49ers beat the Bengals, Broncos and Dolphins. The Steelers most recently feasted on the Seahawks and the Cardinals. Yes, the Broncos won twice. The Dolphins did, too. But they are anomalies, like who have stumbled into a bratwurst festival.

One might contend that man teams have dominated the interspecies face-offs in the Super Bowl because the N.F.L. has more of them. But it only seems that way because they lift the Lombardi Trophy more frequently. In fact, the league has only 14 man teams, compared with 18 beast, bird or thing teams. So the man teams are actually in a minority over all, though they do make up the largest single group.

How to account for the man teams’ prevailing so often against the others, at least in the Super Bowl? I leave it to the sports psychologists and anthropologists to decipher that one.

A book I once read about becoming a better tennis player said that it helps to picture Andre Agassi when you play, that part of the transformation toward improvement is a kind of visualization of self. The N.F.L. has Brian Dawkins, who has been quite public with his obsession with imagining he is the fictional superhero Wolverine.

Perhaps in the macho, manly-man culture of the N.F.L., it’s easier for these behemoths to connect to their character, as Dawkins might say, when they are of the relatable sort: packers of meat, miners of gold, defenders against British tyranny.

After all, when I asked my nephews what they were going to be for Halloween — and N.F.L. Sundays are like Halloween for adults — they said Gladiator, Luke Skywalker and Spider-Man. With choices like these, who among children and bone-crunching football players would want to be a little red bird?

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