In the late 1980’s, the Philadelphia Eagles had a talented but deeply troubled young wide receiver named Cris Carter. He played three seasons for the Eagles; in the third of those seasons he scored 11 touchdowns in 16 games.
The following fall, Carter was cut from the Eagles. Head coach Buddy Ryan was understandably asked how he could part with a player who produced the sport’s most vital resource (touchdowns) so prodigiously. And efficiently, for that matter, as Carter caught those 11 touchdowns despite only catching 45 passes.
Though Ryan was known for bombast and self-aggrandization, his explanation for releasing Carter was relatively lucid. ''Carter…didn't make anything happen outside the 20-yard line. We've got speedy guys who can make things happen.''
This was a tactful way of saying that Carter only worked hard when the team’s offense got far enough down the field to where he might have a chance to score. Carter became a much more complete player after leaving Philadelphia, but he still had a knack for getting the ball across the goal line.
Unfortunately, Ryan’s sensible analysis was repeated, revised and rehashed down through the years, to the point that Ryan has since been serially misquoted as saying that he cut Cris Carter because “Cris Carter only caught touchdowns.” Ryan was thus often lampooned for undervaluing his game’s scarcest commodity, when in fact he knew that touchdowns were crucial.
Which brings us to the very curious case of Edin Dzeko.
Dzeko has six goals in Premier League play this season. All of them have come in the second half of play. Five of them have come after Dzeko entered the game as a substitute. These facts are hard to believe on their own, but the significance of these goals is even greater than these facts suggest.
Dzeko’s goal in the 88th minute against Tottenham Hotspur marked the fourth time this season that a Dzeko tally gave Manchester City its eventual margin of victory. Against West Bromwich Albion, his two late goals both tied and won the match.
And so the prevailing narrative is that Dzeko is a “super-sub.” Roberto Mancini might be forgiven for concluding that he will get as much production from Dzeko in limited action—perhaps more—as he does in the fixtures Dzeko starts.
Naturally, Dzeko does not want to hear that. No matter how prolific he has been on a goals-per-minutes-played basis, Dzeko understandably resents the label he finds sticking to him. It's probably not the "super" he objects to; "sub" is the problem. He wants to start. He wants to score goals that give City early leads. He wants to be seen as more than a one-trick striker.
But if Dzeko really is bothered by how City is deploying him, he needs to reassess his own thinking. Because if he is disappointed under these circumstances, he is missing the point the way people thought Buddy Ryan was missing the point when he complained that Cris Carter “only caught touchdowns.”
Every player should be so lucky as to be thought of as the man to whom his side should turn when the moments matter most, when a goal must be scored and someone has to go and do it.
For City, it is nice, well and good to have Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez wreaking havoc with opposing backlines and creating chances. Aguero’s marker against Spurs leveled the match and brought some ease of mind to the Etihad where it had been missing to that point. Tevez mishit a beautiful pass from David Silva, or he might well have scored himself.
But then there was just a minute or two left in regulation time, and City was still deadlocked 1-1, and a draw would leave City four back of Manchester United.
Then there was that man again. Silva chip, Dzeko wheel-and-fire. Goal. Win. Edin Dzeko can worry about being the biggest (or only) star for some other side some other day.
For right now, it is probably just best for Dzeko to enjoy his heroic status while he can.