Sports Nut

Assessing Pro Football at Midseason

Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison


When we convened before the NFL season started, I kicked off our dialogue by asking whether pro football fans were watching “awesome gridiron action … or athletes destroying themselves for our pleasure.” The last couple of months have confirmed that the NFL packs in a whole lot of both. If there are any mitt-pounding holdouts who still need confirmation of America’s sports pecking order, consider that the Steelers-Saints game on Halloween night scored higher ratings than Game 4 of the World Series. At the same time, the NFL has been forced to confront its mortality this season, as a series of terrifying, concussive hits have left dozens upon dozens of players sprawled out on the turf.

Commissioner Roger Goodell’s solution to the league’s guys-knocked-unconscious problem: “enhanced discipline” for defenders who smash into defenseless receivers. While nobody has been suspended for an illegal, helmet-to-helmet hit, the new (or at least more rigidly enforced) rules have led to more fines and more penalty flags. They’ve also driven players like Channing Crowder (“They give me a helmet, I’m going to use it”), Ryan Clark (“The game is ruined!”), and James Harrison (“I may have to give up playing football”) to existential crises. If a hard-hitting player isn’t allowed to hit hard, then what’s he doing on the field in the first place?

Nate, in an op-ed for the New York Times, you joined the chorus of players condemning the league’s stricter disciplinary policy. Your conclusion: “The only way to prevent head injuries in football is no more football. … The players understand the risks, and the fans enjoy watching them take those risks. Changing the rules enough to truly safeguard against head injuries would change the game beyond recognition. It wouldn’t be football anymore.”

While I agree with the overall sentiment here—at this point in the game’s development, it would be just as impossible to cut the violence out of football as it would be to excise the forward pass—I don’t think Goodell and the NFL have acted hastily or foolishly. Yes, the rules on “helmet-to-helmet” hits are inconsistent and unevenly enforced, but I give the league credit for at least trying to rid the sport of its most brazen, most dangerous acts. It’s at least a worthy experiment to see if players’ on-field behavior is changeable. If the league has to piss off James Harrison and Channing Crowder to find out the answer, then the league should piss them off.

The first nine weeks of the NFL season, it’s worth mentioning, also included things like touchdowns and spin moves and blocked punts and gigantic men kicking extra points. (Unsolicited idea for a new league ad campaign: The NFL—It’s More Than Just Traumatic Brain Injuries!) Michael Vick has looked like the extraordinarily gifted quarterback he was always supposed to be. The Browns have pulled off some of the best gadget plays in recent NFL history. And the sudden revivals of the Chiefs and the Raiders culminated in a great, rivalry-restoring overtime contest in which Oakland receiver/returner Jacoby Ford had one of the greatest games (or at least greatest collection of highlights) I’ve ever seen.

With Kansas City and Oakland surging, the Cowboys have done more than their share to ensure the game’s zero-sumness. After America’s Team lost to Green Bay 45-7, Dallas owner Jerry Jones announced that “there are a lot of people here who are certainly going to suffer” for the team’s 1-7 start. Sufferer No. 1: head coach Wade Phillips. The Vikings’ failings have been less pathetic, more operatic: the arrival and catering-related-departure of Randy Moss, Brett Favre’s weekly will he (drop dead of sundry internal injuries) or won’t he (ever stop being annoying) routine, and Brad Childress’ raging unpopularity, which led the coach to note quite accurately that Minnesota fans “came [to the Metrodome] expecting to see an execution.”

OK, Tom, what am I missing? What’s been the story of the NFL season thus far?

Safety first,