From Day One -- or was it The Get-Go? -- it was evident the campaign for the 23rd annual Trite Trophy was Gonna Be A Dogfight.
Oh yes, you've stumbled into still another of these fruitless annual episodes in which we dishonor the worst sports cliche of the fast-fading year by flooding all examples of insipid sports language with the harsh rhetorical light of reason.
The 2006 calendar started with a flash flood of predictions regarding the Steelers' playoff chances, including a spate of wonderfully dull backstage analyses of looming Steelers-Bengals, Steelers-Colts, Steelers-Broncos, and ultimately Steelers-Seahawks collisions with "one thing's for sure, it's gonna be a dogfight."
But see, I don't want to see a dogfight. Especially for $600 per ticket.
I can see a dogfight for nothin'.
Had I wanted to see a dogfight at any point in the past 11 plus years, in fact, I could simply have let my own deadly suburban bush Lab off her leash around the corner, near the back porch of the wailing mutt that so obviously detested her presence. Don't know what would have happened, but one thing's for sure: It was Gonna Be A Dogfight.
The fight for the 2006 Trite Trophy was somewhat doggish itself, I can tell you. It was viciously contested all across the linguistic map, and particularly among last year's finalists, with playmakers Making Plays all over the theoretical field.
In fact, Making Plays, a cliche of presumably immense potential, finally had a Breakout Year. Listen to Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis:
"Really, it can be frustrating because they keep making plays. But if they make plays, we have to respond the next play. We can't get down or whatever. Pat White is a great player, and he'll make plays, but as long as we keep working and fighting, we should be able to make plays."
Often as not with the Panthers this fall, they were the team that should have been able to make plays, but not the team that actually made plays, unless it was just a case of Who Wanted It More. Making Plays way, way, way too often resulted in a player becoming known as a Difference Maker, but as we've seen just in the past week, there are difference makers less celebrated. Given just the right urgency, your difference maker can be an undersized seventh-round pick out of Southwest Missouri State who doubles as a long-snapper. Nobody figured Cincinnati Bengals specialist Brad St. Louis for a difference maker last Sunday in Denver, but his bad snap on an extra point in the final minute was the difference in a crippling 24-23 loss, making him the difference maker. Either that or the Bengals were victims of the long-snapping gods.
As the media is never one to leave mindless enough alone, it added, "He Can Make Plays With His Feet." No one said, I noticed, He Can Make Plays With His Liver, but I'd like to see someone try to Stretch The Defense Vertically without it.
Only one cliche exclusive to baseball has ever won the Trite Trophy, that being Walk-Off Homer in 2000, but speculation that a second was going to Take It To The House arose in earnest this summer due to repeated incidents of Manny Being Manny. Manny Ramirez, the Red Sox' locked-in-adolescence superstar, didn't bother to attend Pittsburgh's All-Star Game, one of his several regularly scheduled atrocities that get tacitly excused as Manny Being Manny. ESPN baseball analysts said Manny Being Manny so often that by September I was hoping that Ramirez (or ManRam in the equally horrifying cliche) would reveal that he was attempting to develop nuclear weapons. At least then they could have substituted Manny Being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
No other really serious Trite bids arose in the noise of summer, although several became legitimate annoyances, including Staying Inside The Ball. This was an attempt to describe a hitter's approach, specifically one that hoped to avoid swinging too early. He's Sitting Dead Red had another good run, that being the cliche that pretends to describe a hitter anticipating a fastball, and another boffo summer got turned in by Overpaid For Jeromy Burnitz.
The Trite remains dominated by football, partly because of the timing of the award, but mostly because sports cliches are best slung by footballers who continue to just assume that you have attention deficit disorder. Why else would they continually reset the discussion with awfully good football players playing Very Physical Football on Both Sides Of The Football and excellent football coaches trying to win football games in the National Football League as that would clearly be in the best interests of our football team and certainly the director of football operations?
This very thing is threatening to spread to other sports.
"That's a great golf shot."
Well that's great, because after all, I'm watching golf. And while it is a great golf shot, it'd be a terrible Dribble Drive. It'd be traveling, if basketball still had traveling.
Time now to honor a couple of special people who made good faith efforts to avoid cliches this year, which is a Trap Game if there ever was one. They had great intentions, but wound up saying something even dumber than the dumb thing they were trying not to say.
ESPN football analyst Mark Schlereth, bless him, trying to avoid Pin Their Ears Back, the cliche that attempts to describe the attitude of defenders who know they can pass rush without fear of being crossed up by a running play, instead said, "you don't want to get into a situation where the defense can just, you know, set their hair on fire."
But our annual Mixologist Medal, given to someone who's trying to keep the cliches straight but is Just Not Getting It Done goes to Penguins analyst Bob Errey, who snaps a two-year winning streak by Steelers linebacker Larry Foote ("It's a chess game out there and he's always ahead of the eight ball," and "We've got to nip that in the butt."). Errey, describing the traditional dislike between the Penguins and Flyers, said at one point, "there's no blood lost between these teams."
For mixing "no love lost" and "bad blood" so seamlessly Bob, you're this year's first star of mixology. Nice goin'.
Before we get to the announcement of our 2006 finalists (intense, isn't it?), a quick review of some tremendously annoying performances the past 12 months.
A play-by-play construction that never seems to lose its suspect usefulness was again all over my TV this year -- Shy Of The First Down. This is one of the few football constructions that attempts to assign human qualities to the ball itself (Ball Skills describes a player, specifically one who can catch). How can you be sure the ball is shy in the first place, let alone shy of the first down? First down is an approachable fellow it would seem. Perhaps the ball is merely reticent. The ball is clearly short, by any definition. Sometimes, it's short of a first down, but I don't think it's actually shy.
Thanks almost exclusively to Tiger Woods, it was a huge year for the old Emotional Roller Coaster. Woods' wondrous win streak after the death of his father drove about 10 billion metric tons of coverage, and twice inside of an hour on two different networks just the other day, correspondents put Tiger back on the ERC. The emotional roller coaster never really goes out of vogue, although as we've noted previously, a handful of athletes, such as former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, are too short to ride the emotional roller coaster.
On The Same Page and Not On The Same Page were twin towers again this year, with Big Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward actually wearing out both for the past three years.
"For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was not on the same page with the receivers," Ben said after the Baltimore game last week.
True, some of his passes appeared to land on the facing page, others sailing clear to the next chapter.
Again this season, hundreds of defensive backs successfully Jumped The Route, the relatively new construction purporting to explain that the defender anticipated a pass so well he put himself in a better position to catch it than the intended receiver. My father, as it happens, pioneered Jumped The Route as a mailman who'd often apply to his superiors for a better route. Guys with seniority would often snatch them, however. Yeah, he'd say, somebody Jumped The Route.
The most ubiquitous performance by a relatively new cliche' came from Double Move, which used to be known as a fake. But today, thanks to Double Move, when a receiver starts one pattern and goes into another, people have begun to Bite On The Double Move. Double Move has a Tremendous Upside, unlike the Browns' Ted Washington, who has a tremendous backside.
Before our countdown to the 2006 Trite Trophy winner begins then, a special thank you to all of the repugnant cliches in our live audience here at the fabulous multi-purpose room of Trite Hindquarters: Skinny Post, Hot Read, Hot Route, Imposed Their Will, Drank the Kool-Aid, Not In Our House, This Is Our House, Never Looked Back, Run The Table (the Steelers instead tabled the run), Under The Radar, Speed Of The Game, The Game Is Slowing Down For Him, Overcome Adversity, Caught The Ball At Its Highest Point (quite a trick when you consider the average pass rises 12 to 18 feet in the air at its highest point), In Space, Back In The Day (it's never back in the night, or back in the dusk), Open Field, The Real Deal, He's Flying Around Out There (trying to catch it at its highest point, no doubt), You've Got To Give Them Credit (even though they're making millions), Getting After It (getting after what?), Failed To Wrap Up, Runnin' The Floor, Buyin' Some Time, and You Couldn't Write A Better Script (have you read Tennessee Williams?).
All right, please set your cell phones on vibrate. No flash photography. Yada yada yada.
Our third runner-up:
Managed The Game -- Bit of a regression here as Managed The Game got Left At The Altar last year, but again, far more quarterbacks managed the game this year than mismanaged the game, at least in cliche world. This is sportspeak for not throwing interceptions.
Our second runner-up:
Blitzing Off The Edge -- A first time finalist, this nonsense conveying the rush of a defensive end or outside linebacker (and sometimes a corner) might have won the Trite had it not morphed into two or three related phrases like Getting Help On The Edge, Attacking The Edge and Protecting The Edge.
Our first runner-up:
Thrown Under The Bus -- No one was literally thrown under a mass transit vehicle, but hundreds of coaches, managers, players and even broadcasters were dismissed or scapegoated this year, almost all of them said to have been thrown under the bus. The derivation of this is too frightful to think about, particularly as it might apply to Jerome Bettis.
Now then without further undoing of our reputation, a reminder the three criteria for The Trite Trophy. It has to be essentially meaningless, it has to be pervasive and the Trite Committee (me) has to really, really hate it.
And the Trite goes to ...
It Is What It Is.
Ohmygawd the first repeat winner and the first two-time winner of the Trite Trophy, It Is What It Is was even more ubiquitous than it was in winning the 2005 Trite, when it was merely revoltingly everywhere. Its list of star turns simply would not fit in our disappearing space.
The Steelers couldn't repeat as champions, but they played a huge role in a second consecutive title for IIWII.
If Bill Cowher said it once, he said it 500 times this year, even to the extent that special teams coach Kevin Spencer said in December, "To quote coach Cowher, it is what it is." Ike Taylor, having lost his starting cornerback job three months after signing a new contract, told the Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac, "It doesn't even have anything to do with the contract. They said it is what it is ... I don't know what that means. It is what it is."
And we all know why Ike doesn't know what it is what it is means, because it doesn't mean anything, meaninglessness being the first protocol of all Trite winners. It's the equivalent of saying, "I don't know what to say, so I'm saying this instead: it is what it is." And that's what everybody said, pretty much coast to coast, in lieu of actual communication.
Baltimore's Ed Reed and Atlanta's Michael Vick said it on the same sports page on the same day about two completely different topics. In Vick's case, he'd just been fined $10,000 for giving fans an obscene jesture, and decided to contribute another $10,000 to charity. Asked to explain, he said, "it is what it is, 20 grand."
The Trite Committee does not take lightly the momentous nature of a two-time Trite winner. Accordingly, we tried to reach Archie Griffin, the only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy, for a comment but was told by his assistant at the Ohio State alumni association that he's out until the New Year. At least she didn't say, "it is what it is."
Not even Red Zone, the greatest living cliche, having spawned both an official NFL statistic and a deodorant, could repeat in 1995 in the face of the West Coast Offense.
But again, as Cowher would say and has said and said and said and said and said.
"It is what it is. And you deal with it."
Epilogue: Upon completion of this essay, I retired to a local tavern, where, standing not 10 feet to my left were two gentleman in a discussion of one's relationships. "I finally told them," said the guy nearer to me, "look, I love you both, but it is what it is."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 3, 2007) This column as originally published in Dec. 31, 2006 editions incorrectly spelled the name of Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis.
In a class by themselves (and other mindless places)
The obligatory chart of past Trite Trophy winners
2005: It is what it is.
2004: Shutdown corner
2003: Cover 2
2002: Running downhill
2001: Put points on the scoreboard
2000: Walk-off homer
1999: Somebody's gotta step up
1998: Eight men in the box
1997: Show me the money
1996: Been there, done that
1995: West Coast offense
1994: Red Zone
1993: It hasn't sunk in yet
*-1992: Mentality of a linebacker
1991: You don't have to be a rocket scientist
1990: Smashmouth football
1989: He coughs it up
1988: They went to the well once too often
1987: Crunch time
1986: Gut check
1984: Playing 'em one game at a time.
*-Awarded on WDVE during newspaper strike.