Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, tatterdemalion: Don’t flex your word muscles at me, Stefan. Remember, I’m a football player.
But the comparisons do bring up very interesting points, and not just on the surface. Aside from the fantastic football action we’ve seen during the first half of the season, we’ve been bombarded by tabloid-style gossip that has little or nothing to do with the actual games. A superstar player being verbally abusive to caterers? That’s not a new story—I witnessed it several times in my career and forgot about it an hour after it happened. An aging quarterback who doesn’t know when to walk away from the game? Old story. That same aging quarterback, married with children, allegedly trying to get in bed with an attractive team employee? Old story. A team that was picked to contend for the title ends up 1-7 at the halfway point? Another old story.
The fact that we are having such a thoughtful conversation about the “normal” things that go on in the NFL—comparing them to Hemingway and Marquez—shows just how hungry the media is for anything football. It also shows how naive they have been for years about what really goes on in the NFL. It used to be that players and coaches kept their mouths shut and let sleeping dogs lie. But with a 24-hour sports news cycle to fill, journalists have become relentless. The dogs can’t sleep with all that noise.
Nowhere is the relationship between media and player more gluttonous than in Minnesota with Brett Favre. Both parties are pimping themselves out on a daily basis. Favre is Narcissus with a bullhorn, and the national sports media astonishingly plays along as he repeatedly implies his own greatness. “Do I think about the streak? Yes, but that’s not what this is about.” “Have I led numerous fourth-quarter comebacks in the past? Of course, but that didn’t happen today.” “Have I been on Super Bowl-winning teams? Sure, but that’s not what we’re talking about.” You would think that Favre’s alleged courting of a Jets employee would make the media wise up about his “aww, shucks” image and take away that bullhorn. Instead, they turned up the volume.
The high expectations in Dallas were another media construct, but this one had a few more teeth. The Cowboys are hosting this year’s Super Bowl, and what a story if they were playing in it, too! Fast-forward to the present, and Wade Phillips is sitting on his couch eating mac-and-cheese and watching SportsCenter. And Jason Garrett, head coach in waiting, waits no more. It is his team now, or so says the NFL’s No. 2 Narcissus, Jerry Jones. It is hard to pinpoint exactly how and why an NFL team falls to pieces. There are so many moving parts. But a hefty share of the blame should go to the meddling owner who considers himself a businessman, promoter, player personnel expert, general manager, entrepreneur, public speaker, draft guru, and coach. That ego seeps into every nook and cranny of that organization and clogs up the machinery. The result is a 1-7 team: uninspired and looking forward to Jan. 3, the first day of the offseason.
There is nowhere quite as uncomfortable as the facility of an NFL team after a string of losses. Even on a winning team, the daily rigmarole can be a lot to take. On a losing team, people start looking over their shoulders, knowing that another loss on Sunday means somebody is getting fired. At the start, the guys getting fired don’t make the news, unless you’re looking through transaction reports. It will be a role-playing nickel defender who got beat down the seam for a touchdown. Knee-jerk: He’s fired. The punter has a few bad punts: fired. These small sacrifices are less about the player who messed up and more about sending a message to the rest of the team: You are not safe. But the more a team starts to crumble and the losses start to stack up, the pricier are the heads that roll—Randy Moss, Wade Phillips, and Donovan McNabb, decapitated midseason.
Having played for Mike Shanahan for six years, I’m not surprised by his benching of Donovan McNabb with the game on the line. Along with the increased scrutiny, payroll, and hype in the NFL has come an attention to detail and an obsession with perfection that has consumed coaches all around the league. Shanahan is no different. He is an excellent coach, but he micromanages his quarterbacks to the point of exhaustion. If his quarterback doesn’t do exactly what he would do, then the excrement hits the air-conditioner. That’s why Jake Plummer was benched in favor of Jay Cutler. Jake trusted his instincts on the football field. If his gut told him to do something different than the scientific design of the play, he did it. There is no room for that in Coach Shanahan’s offense. None whatsoever. Not with a legacy to protect.
There are, however, always details that the public knows little about. Shanahan does a good job keeping team issues internal. The fact that he divulged information about McNabb’s lack of fitness and poor playbook knowledge must mean that this has been a problem for a while. (Stefan, let’s not get carried away and make this a race issue. You know better.) But Rex Grossman, no matter how well he has been practicing, is hardly a proven winner. Regardless, the Redskins will have a new quarterback next year, and he will learn quickly where he can and can’t throw the football, or his head will roll, too.
So, Josh, out of all the great stuff you mentioned, what do you think are the most intriguing stories thus far? And more importantly, why?