Perfection in sports is an imperfect science, impossible to prove because it is impossible to attain. Yet knowing this, we still expect flawless performance.
Sometimes we even come close to getting it, but not quite, in part because perfection is based on definition and point of view. For example, a perfect game in baseball is not without blemish, as even the winning pitcher must admit he threw at least one ball when he meant to throw a strike.
Baseball actually handles the lack of perfection better than most sports, probably because the length of its season prohibits pinpoint precision — no one expects a team to win all 162 games — but also because failure is woven into the game’s fabric, to the point of being celebrated. Fail at the plate two out of every three appearances over a long career and the Hall of Fame will come calling.
Football, on the other hand, is ruthless about a lack of exactness from its players and teams. After all, a season comprises only a dozen games or so. And it’s not like a quarterback is trying to hit a 90-mph curveball.
In some ways, college football seems most harsh in not forgiving the lack of perfection. Never mind that the athletes are amateurs of non-drinking age. Fans voice their passions against an emotional backdrop of fight songs, marching bands and alumni.
Which brings us to Ohio State and what I call the escalation of perfection expectation. It no longer is enough to routinely ride the up escalator. Expectations have become so high that standing on the moving stairs is not enough. We impatiently push ahead even as the escalator ascends.
The Buckeyes are ranked No. 10 in The Associated Press poll this week but remain in the top five of finger-pointing by its fan base. The media, meanwhile, is both purveyor and participant in pointing out OSU’s imperfections. When not watching from a 20-story window as the masses build into a mob, we are on the sidewalk with them, swept up in the shoulder-to-shoulder flow of frustration that ends with declarations of “J.T. must go.”
That is not the same as saying Barrett must get going, which is a fair request. And maybe he is? Not perfect, mind you, but shades of it. The Ohio State quarterback completed 15 of his 16 dinks and dunks at or behind the line of scrimmage in Saturday’s 38-7 win against Army. On the other hand, he was only 10 of 17 on other throws down the field.
Urban Meyer demands more, but the OSU coach no longer is the uber-perfectionist who stalked the sideline at Florida. I asked him Monday how he finds contentment for both himself and his team while operating a program in which the noise of expected perfection practically perforates the eardrums.
“That used to be a major issue with me. It really is not” anymore, he said of tuning out the clatter. “I’ll check recruiting and some things on my iPad. It’s hard at times, but we also made a decision to come to Ohio State … (That’s) life in the big city.”
It must be said that Ohio State contributes to the escalation of perfection by fanning an image of elite success. Everything from paying Meyer $6.5 million to installing a water wall in the football facility to increasing ticket prices into the triple figures raises the stakes of expectation. The more invested, the higher the demand for impeccable results.
One thing we know for certain is that one-loss Ohio State can improve this season, but it will never be perfect. Contentment needs to be found somewhere between those two.