The Bills are here to play the Bengals today and that conjures up the concepts of comebacks and grace under pressure and all the things that make quarterbacks, fans and the endless crusade of hope.
As head coach Marvin Lewis would say, today is a good teaching point for one A. Dalton, the promising Bengals rookie quarterback who two weeks ago came within a yard of pulling off a road fourth-quarter comeback in his first NFL complete game.
But, of course, one team’s comeback is another team’s collapse.
This past week saw all-timers on both fronts when the Red Sox turned baseball into Shakespeare and alternated tragedy with comedy while blowing the biggest lead in the history of their sport to somehow miss the postseason. That was a few days after these Bills, naturally, did in the Patriots to become the first team in NFL history to win two straight weeks after being down 21-0.
If you grew up on the outskirts of Boston in the late 1960s and fell in love with sports because of The Impossible Dream Red Sox and their 1967 season, then watching the biggest collapse of all-time is saying something. While those Sox made comebacks an almost daily occurrence, their unfortunate ancestors never held any kind of a lead that mattered until the new century.
The Septembers of 1974 and 1978 scarred a generation, and a 1986 World Series that featured evaporated leads of 3-2 in games, 5-3 in the 10th inning of Game 6 and 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7 altered the brain chemistry forever.
Enough so that on the final day of this season decades and championships removed, when the Red Sox had a one-run lead in a rain delay and the Rays begun to rustle in Tampa, true Sox fans already knew.
“I went to bed during the delay,” admitted Frank Champi from his New England home last week. “You could tell. Maybe because I experienced it myself. They say it’s not over until it’s over, but at some point you know how it’s going to turn out.”
If you grew up on the outskirts of Boston in the late 1960s and were watching TV on the afternoon of Nov. 23, 1968, you fell in love with football because of Frank Champi. Summoned from the bench with unbeaten Harvard down 22-0 to unbeaten Yale late in the first half, Champi, an unknown junior who had completed five passes all season and was best known for throwing the ball 85 yards with his right arm and 50 with his left, threw two touchdown passes in the final 42 seconds and a two-point conversion with no time left to turn a 29-13 deficit into a historic 29-29 finish.
Not as incredible, but just as amazing, Champi has never met Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills quarterback and architect of Buffalo’s last two historic finishes. If Fitzpatrick is the greatest quarterback in Harvard history, then Champi quarterbacked the school’s greatest football moment.
Never mind. Champi is a big fan. They’ll meet some day.
“I agree, I thought he was the greatest quarterback in Harvard history when he was there,” Champi said. “He had all the intangibles, he led by example, he was very well-respected. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for (NFL) teams to realize it. I saw him play a little bit and I thought he was special. I’ve been following his career since he’s been in the pros and he’s been outstanding. I thought all he needed was a chance.”
Champi didn’t do much else on the field after The Tie in The Game, but what else was there? He’s as humble now as he was then when he told Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated in the locker room, “I was so tired I wasn’t even nervous.”
A product of Everett, Mass., Champi has stayed close to his roots and out of the limelight, but is a pleasant and engaging ambassador for the game and the moment. He had to admit, he was torn last Sunday watching Fitzpatrick come back on his Pats.
“I want to see him do well, no question about that. There’s an obvious connection,” said Champi, surprised that no Harvard quarterback completed an NFL pass until Fitzpatrick did six years ago. “But at some point you’re just enjoying the game and want to see the best team that day win. I’m pulling for Fitz, though. I’d love to see him take the Bills to the playoffs.”
Bengals fans aren’t immune to comebacks and collapses. Their own tortured history began on the edge of the ‘90s in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXIII and a 16-13 lead that didn’t hold up in the final three minutes. The kids have experienced it, too.
In 2006, leads as small as 13-7 and as big as 28-7 were blown to knock them out of the playoffs. In 2009, their AFC North champs were nicknamed “The Cardiac Cats,” when they won two division games in the final 22 seconds and another on the final play of overtime in one draining three-week stretch.
And last year Fitzpatrick, the former Bengal, came to Paul Brown Stadium to lead the NFL’s biggest halftime comeback ever when he brought the Bills back from 17 down to win by 18.
Dalton fired a shot for the New Era when he generated 19 second-half points in Denver two weeks ago with two touchdown passes in a rally that fell short with three minutes left at the Broncos 36 on fourth-and-one in a 24-22 loss. Yet he showed all the attributes to be able to pull it off.
Except maybe experience, as evidenced by last week’s two interceptions in the final 4:54 of a one-touchdown game at home against the 49ers.
Champi and Fitzpatrick can help him there.
“I’m enjoying this so much because I’ve been on the other side. I know how quickly it can change in this league,” Fitzpatrick said last week. “I’m a lot more experienced. I feel like those 12 games in Cincinnati were my biggest learning experience and I’ve drawn a lot on them. I’ve improved mentally and physically.”
Champi is a bit uncomfortable talking about comebacks with Fitzpatrick around. “I only had one. Fitzy’s had several.”
But Champi had the greatest. He thinks back to the two-point fast ball over the middle to future White Sox catcher Pete Varney nearly 43 years ago after they cleared the field of marauding fans and the clock of any time.
“It was like it was anti-climactic. It was inevitable. That’s how it felt,” Champi said. “You can tell a lot by body language. People intellectualize sports too much. You can’t define emotion. There are undertones and currents and it’s like you’re riding a wave.”
Not bad advice for one A. Dalton after a historical (or is it hysterical?) week of comebacks.
Tags: Andy Dalton, Bengals, Comebacks, Frank Champi, Harvard, Ryan Fitzpatrick
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