The Eternal Battle: Optimism versus Pessimism

Once a year I get a cold that lasts a month. It’s a tradition like none other. This year’s started on September 11, when I woke up with a scratchy throat after, ironically, recording a podcast episode talking about what happened to me on “that” September 11. In the first week it went from that minor irritation to full-blown bronchitis. I saw a doctor the following week, got antibiotics, and proceeded to feel exactly the same a week later.

I’m entering week four of the cold. What’s the worst thing for a cold? I’d say a football game is up there. You’re standing in the scorching late-September sun, being encouraged to yell on cue at men wearing pads for three plus hours and you are also supposed to drop your critical-thinking skills as well.

This is 20 years of attending Tennessee Titans games at a stadium that’s been a colosseum, a field and now a stadium. During this time I’ve seen countless fans say they could call plays better than Jeff Fisher (likely true), opposing fans come in and have a great time, pumped in music and chants, two playoff wins (missed the Music City Miracle), none since my marriage 15 years ago, two epic defeats to the Ravens, and a lot of “why am I here?” thoughts.

I had one of those thoughts in the third quarter of this week’s game against the Eagles. The Eagles fucking TRAVEL, man. The stadium holds 62,000 ish and I’d say close to half were wearing green. I like watching “enemy combatant” fans because for some franchises, people don’t update their jerseys and bring in the most embarrassing overpaid terrible and forgettable players in franchise history. Eagles fans must have better taste or more money because they have more than their share of bad players. I saw a lot of the throwback kelly green ones that cannot be topped. I don’t get it, the Eagles and Chargers should go throwback full time but I digress.

These fans were having the time of their lives, and actually were louder than the home fans when their team was on defense as the Iggles rolled to a 17-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter. On offense Marcus Mariota was wearing a soon-to-be-trendy glove with two fingers cut off due to nerve damage in his hand. That’s the kind of injury you don’t want for your QB on the verge of a contract extension. Like in the early portions of the endless opener against the Dolphins, the offense showed promise, moving down the field but failing to reach the end zone. Before Sunday, the Titans had four touchdowns the entire season and two were on special teams. In a year with explosive offenses, the Titans needed a laxative.

On first and ten from the 50, trailing 17-3 with about 21 minutes left in the game, Mariota audibled to a run play. He pitched to Derrick Henry, who might as well be on a milk carton, and Henry fumbled. Most experienced WR on the team Nick Williams recovered the fumble and it was second and 22. Mariota then threw a short crosser to Dion Lewis that should have been a five-yard gain but that dude is like a ball in a pinball machine and he spun his way to ten extra yards. Titans convert the first down and less than a minute later, Mariota scores his first TD of the season on a nice run finished with a corkscrew dive into the end zone.

When the score was 17-3, I thought “I’ve been here before, this team shows promise early but can’t hang with teams who actually have won a championship and have the capability of doing it again. What’s the point? You spend all of your Sundays watching this sport with little to no reward. Why times a thousand?”

The rest of the game showed me why. Now it took 20 years for a game like this to happen, and 20 years is a large portion of one’s life, but when a team needs to make a hundred different things happen to win and they do it, you take notice.

Rookie Harold Landry snuck around right tackle and strip-sacked Wentz. One point, optimism. The Titans go for a fourth down and convert. One point, optimism. The Titans fail to score a TD and kick a field goal and are still losing. One point, pessimism.

My desire to be optimistic was a boat that kept on taking water. After taking the lead 20-17, the Titans couldn’t contain the edge on a punt return and the Eagles are in range to take the lead in the final minute. The Eagles can’t cash in and we go to overtime.

The last overtime game I can remember, and this was after the overtime rules changed to allow the second team to have a possession if the first team kicked a field goal, was a crazy game against the Lions. The Titans held a two-touchdown lead with ten seconds to go. The Lions scored, by the way with their backup QB, got the onside kick and converted on a Hail Mary as time expired. The Titans kicked a field goal and the Lions failed on fourth and one on the other end and the Titans were victorious.

The Eagles got the ball and my pessimism was chugging Pepsi Maxes as the Eagles gained chunk after chunk of yardage. But somehow they stalled and kicked the field goal. The Titans had the ball with the freeing knowledge that they would always go for fourth down.

That didn’t necessarily mean that they HAD to go for fourth down every time or that going for it was the wisest choice. But there we were.

The initial first down was easy. Corey Davis who had a career (hopefully starting) game earned a first down on a short screen pass. Then the offense did this. Mariota hit Darius Jennings on a post pattern. Mariota had completed 15 passes in a row and even though his hand may not be 100%, he’s certainly close enough for government work. As you watch the play in slow motion, Jennings is fighting with the ball like trying to corral a meth-crazed cat in your arms. Pass incomplete. Pessimism gets that endorphin kick.Two incompletes later, it’s fourth down, but to add a degree of difficulty the Titans get a penalty. Fourth and 15, are you kidding me? Mariota finds his inner Matt Saracen and completes a pass to Taywan Taylor for a first down. I don’t know what the defense was doing there.
Usually an offense needs to convert one hard first down to get the drive momentum going, but three plays later, it’s fourth down again. Mariota throws a short slant to Nick Williams who artfully puts his hands up as he flails for the pass and the announcer starts saying “Eagles win” and pessimism is doing a complicated interpretive dance but no, a flag comes up and the Eagles fans’ pessimism starts warming up in the bullpen.

It can never be easy. Why would it be easy? Mariota takes a sack and it’s third and 19. I saw to my parents’ friend Tony, what if they get 15 yards? The team would be in long field goal range which if made would tie the game and since it’s the reduced overtime the Eagles would get the ball with a minute to go. As fate has it, Mariota runs up the middle for 17 and it’s fourth and 2.

Football has elements of theatre in it and Coach Mike Vrabel gets that. He initially sends on the kicking team, calls a time out which makes the fans livid due to leaving time on the clock for the Eagles assuming the Titans make it. The offense comes back on. They were always coming back on.

Dion Lewis catches the screen pass, makes one move, Tajae Sharpe comes as close to a block in the back as humanly possible, and it’s another first down. Pessimism just stepped into a sauna that was broken and cold water started pouring out of the ceiling.

Three plays later it’s third and goal from the ten. It’s another unlikely scenario but here we are. From the end zone we watch Corey Davis jump impossibly high as a defender jumps to dislodge the ball…

The crowd erupts and the players run on the field. Pessimism wants to know if the catch was completed. Optimism has imposter syndrome. Titans walk off. I have to sit down because my lungs are full of gunk and breathing isn’t a given. It’s hard to turn it off but eventually I calm down and think “can we do this next week?”

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