Outside the NFL

How is every down a passing down?

Cris Carter, Dan Marino, Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth take viewers Inside the NFL

My cousin Dave played professional football in the 1980s as an offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs. Dave is now a courtly, intelligent giant who rarely talks to me at family reunions, except once many years ago when I asked to see the ring he won at the University of Miami in 1984, just after the Hurricanes became America’s national champs in an exciting upset. He flashed a silverish ring that was knuckle-height, with a blue jewel the size of the face of a watch; it squeezed his big finger, appearing tight but also awesome.

Until this week, when I started watching football television, I had no idea how centrally rings figured into the drama of the sport. On NFL’s Greatest Moments (ESPN) the other night, Phil Villapiano, a prankster former linebacker from the ‘70s Raiders, told the camera how he silences a detractor. “I show him this ring!” he bellowed, brandishing a fat Superbowl ring. *  And on NFL Films Presents (also ESPN) Sunday night, Tom Brady, the heart-stopping quarterback for the Patriots, told this moving parable: “I had an equipment manager at Michigan. He’s got so many Big-Ten rings, he doesn’t have enough fingers. He said, ‘You know, Tom, you know what my favorite ring is?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘The next one. The next one. That’s my favorite.’ “

He faked me out, Brady’s equipment manager. I was sure he was going to say his wedding band. But that only showed how far out I am in left field. Football players are warriors, serving generals and executing campaigns; their minds—under training rules—are not on women. This I should have remembered, since, in addition to Dave, other cousins of mine were terrific, record-setting college-ball players, and my hard-running uncle Mike rocked the gridiron at Holy Cross. Beginning with my grandfather, in fact, who was a fullback at Boston College (anyone remember rugged Roy Heff at B.C. in 1913?), football in our family, as in so many others, was the ne plus ultra of manhood. To this hard fact, I was a spacey witness, a desultory Chiefs fan, and an attendee at high-school games and games at the University of Virginia, where we had to dress formally at the stadium. In the outdoor hours of chill or swelter, I strived to be a gung-ho, flask-sipping date, strong on “We Will Rock You.” In fact, my eyes were fixed on the clock, as I prayerfully willed the whole thing to end.

Basically what I’m trying to tell y’all is no defending champ has ever gotten off to a better start than the Patriots this year. This opinion I cribbed, it’s true, from ESPN’s Stuart Scott, but at least I have an opinion about this season’s football. I also believe the game has changed, and profoundly: It used to be that every team was built around a strong running game. But now the defenses can stop the run, bringing eight of the 11 players up to the line. Every down is a passing down!

Did I get that right? If not, don’t blame me; I’m transcribing as fast as I can. Blame the brain jocks of Monday Night Football (ABC), Inside the NFL (HBO), NFL 2Night (ESPN2), Pro Football Weekly (FOX), NFL Under the Helmet (FOX), NFL Today (CBS), NFL Films Presents (ESPN) and many other jabbery pre- and post-game analyses—the proclamations on which have become, in my mind, one long and irrefutable doctoral dissertation. Actually, for that particular point, blame John Madden, who clarified for me how every down is a passing down. Now I get it: Running games have become boring, with too much quick tackling. Teams now seize every opportunity they get to throw. Moreover, the Eagles have a great defense; the Redskins have an arrogant new coach; the Patriots are amazing; the Rams are in trouble.

If you understand anything about football, for all I know, you understand this. But it’s surprising how much we—women—or rather I—woman—don’t understand. As the pinkish graphics raced behind the announcers on Monday Night Countdown (ESPN) like a speeding train, I rewound and rewound, struggling to understand what the guys were saying. On this show, four men—geometric structures composed of traps, lats, and delts—sit behind a glowing desk that cheats out to the audience. From this place Stuart Scott, Sterling Sharpe, Tom Jackson, and Ron Jaworski (the white guy) opine at lightning speed about who “doesn’t hold a candle” to which “offensive guru.” They use the word “friggin’.” Miked and wired like the Secret Service, one says, “These are a different breed of bird,” to mean the Eagles are improving.

These four don’t miss a beat. And, in their neat speed, they make me feel messy and slow, cast out of their open-outcry system of definitive opinions and obscure jokes that get them whooping. I admire especially the whoops themselves: big male barks that allow these guys to showcase their ice-white teeth, and, then, when they raise their hands in full celebration, to flash their Rolexes and wide gold rings. Rings that could mean anything.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2003:This story originally reported that Phil Villapiano wore an AFC Championship ring. In fact he wears a Super Bowl ring. (Return to corrected sentence.)