Hell, Josh, I might have made the 32-yarder that Garrett Hartley gacked left in the fourth quarter. And he missed a 46-yarder the same way in the second quarter. (My attempt from that distance, however, would have landed in the end zone, if it cleared the leaping linemen at all.) In any event, after one game, NFL placekickers have made 33.3 percent of their field-goal attempts. The shame!
In 2008, I wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated asserting that kickers were so good that it was only a matter of time before the NFL modified its rules to make our craft more challenging. Indeed, that year sidewinders bagged a record 84.5 percent of field-goal attempts and missed just six extra points out of 1,176, which is pretty incredible. (Sadly, when the Saints blocked Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell after Minnesota’s lone touchdown, my dream of the first perfect year for PATs died.) Our friends at Football Outsiders point out that field-goal percentages tend to fluctuate; wind, distance, field condition, physical and mental state, and botched assignments all play a role in individual kicks. So last year’s NFL-wide 81.3 percent success rate (fourth-best ever) was about right while the 20 missed PATs were an outlier, the worst percentage since 2001 and the most misses since 1993. Hartley, by the way, rushed both kicks; his hips and right leg rotated too quickly, causing him to hook the ball left. I’d imagine Saints fans have it in their hearts to forgive him.
I actually dozed off during the fourth quarter, but I endured the Saints-as-saviors hosannas and the Mardi Gras floats and the odd choice of Malibu-born pop folkie Colbie Caillat to sing the anthem—though at least the NFL didn’t make everything about New Orleans/Katrina/Super Bowl/Who Dat?/the redemptive power of sport. My favorite pregame moment came when players from both teams walked onto the field and raised their index fingers in a message to owners about union contract negotiations. “Nothing like a labor statement to start the season,” Al Michaels griped on NBC, taking the time-honored management position that sports are games, not businesses. Guess what, Al? If the players don’t get some love from ownership, they’ll be raising their middle fingers, and so will fans, and you’ll have nothing to play-by-play about because there won’t be a 2011 season. Solidarnosc!
So, no, Josh, the game didn’t make me forget about collective bargaining and player contracts and concussions. Peter King, collecting an extra paycheck on top of his normal duties as SI’s resident NFL sage, coffee maven, and hyper-Twitterer, broke in with a bulletin that Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback and car-crash survivor, had signed a four-year contract extension worth as much as $72 million, with $48.5 million of it—that’s 67 percent—guaranteed. As for the brain-damage part of football, call me morbid, but every time I watch Brett Favre get hit, I think about the old gunslinger tottering around in 10 or 20 years. I don’t worry, exactly. In fact, I can’t stand how Favre has manipulated the media and fans, can’t stand how he’s hijacked teams and disrespected teammates, can’t even stand the way he wears his jersey, partly tucked in but with a fold over the waist. Pick a style, old-timer! But every extra hit won’t make Favre’s retirement any easier. Maybe the NFL needs to implement a mandatory retirement age (for everyone but kickers, of course).
Favre did an excellent job handing the ball to Adrian Peterson, who gained 87 yards against an energetic Saints defense. It was in the other, rather important, part of a quarterback’s job description that he sucked. Favre completed just 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards and a pedestrian 71.7 passer rating. Moreover, he threw several uncatchable balls and had one ill-advised Favre-ian throw that resulted in a Favre-rception. Like millions of other observers, I couldn’t help wonder whether Favre’s passes and timing with his receivers might not have been better had he, you know, SHOWN UP FOR PRACTICE this summer. Nate can explain better than I how it takes hundreds of repetitions for quarterbacks and receivers to synchronize their throws and routes; the best tandems—Montana-Rice, P. Manning-Harrison, et al.—need years to develop an instinctive feel for what each other will do, exactly where and exactly when. Just because Favre has played in the NFL for 120 seasons doesn’t mean he can get reacquainted with the Vikings receivers in two and a half weeks (especially since his favorite target from 2009, Sidney Rice, is out with a hip injury).
Afterward, Favre predictably blew off reporters who wondered whether he might be rusty after an offseason that included ankle surgery. “You can attribute it to whatever—people call it rusty,” Favre said. People call it that because that’s what it is, and it’s that because you didn’t SHOW UP FOR PRACTICE. Also predictably, Favre took the humble high road. “I have to make the throws. I didn’t make enough of them,” as if his failures had nothing to do with the fact that he didn’t SHOW UP FOR PRACTICE. And then he reminded reporters that, in football years, he’s old. “I don’t move around like I used to, but I feel like I did OK.” But you might have done better, Brett, had you SHOWN UP FOR PRACTICE.
Nate, our man Mike Shanahan wouldn’t have tolerated that. After your pal Jake Plummer quarterbacked you and the rest of the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game after the 2005 season, he missed a handful of supposedly voluntary workouts. Shanahan didn’t forgive him. The coach revered John Elway, possibly to a fault. Elway was the paragon who apparently never missed any workouts and hung up his cleats rather than take advantage of his iconic status the way Favre has.
So, Nate, give us a quick ball-catcher’s take on the importance of quarterback-receiver timing. And then let’s cut to the high end-zone camera. In the last two days, you’ve provided two sobering takes on life in the NFL. They’re familiar to me, because we spent a summer together in Denver witnessing, experiencing, and discussing the soul-crushing nature of pro football. But I also know that you love the game. So for your final goddamn snack, tell us what it is that you love about football. Can you watch an NFL game like a fan? Do you root for your boyhood team or just for NFL friends? Can you forgive the game for destroying your spirit, your body, and, finally, your dreams?