Long-time watcher, first-time doubter, eh, Tom? It sounds as if you’re looking for meaning and fairness from the NFL—or at least that you’ve narrowed your search to the 60 minutes stretched over three and a half hours on Sundays and Mondays and, starting this week, Thursdays. Good luck with that.
I won’t dwell too long on the NFL’s moral ambiguity. For one thing, the league’s image is grounded in the false notion of exactitude. The rulebook is as complex as a torts textbook and yet, as we see weekly, it fails to anticipate situation after situation. Willamette University law professor Jeffrey Standen argues that the NFL rulebook is actually too specific to be effective or even workable. So referees attempt to shoehorn events to fit the rules, tossing eyeballs and common sense to the wind. And then the league, like an addicted gambler, responds with yet another amendment to address the latest unanticipated event. (In the spirit of blinding fans with legalese, the NFL on Tuesday released its “player-safety rules“; feel free to skip the fine print and scroll down to the awesome Chip Hilton-style drawings of football-field impalings.)
It’s a ruse. All those rules and all those military metaphors help to distract from pro football’s fundamental contradiction: What happens on the field looks precise and choreographed, but the important stuff turns out to be arbitrary. Once the ball is snapped, chaos ensues. And no rule or video replay or phallic telestration can disguise that. So, yes, Tom, the outcomes of plays can be arbitrary, the enforcement of the rules can be arbitrary, and the fate of the players most certainly is arbitrary. And I’d posit that you (we) watch precisely because that arbitrariness produces exceptional athletic performances and just enough uncertainty and controversy to make it worth talking about. I bet you can’t wait for the next receiver to run a slant over the middle. As for Austin Collie, what simultaneously sickened and amused me were the Philadelphia fans booing lustily while a player lay motionless on the field. Nothing ambiguous about that.
Josh, you mention many exciting moments from the season so far. But they’re all from actual games. What’s up with that? You and I live in Washington, D.C., and we know that the real football of interest occurs off the field. Without midweek Redskins intrigue, how would the Washington Post fill its already thin sports section? Last week was a bye week for the politically incorrect nickname, but that’s meant an extended run of columnist fulminations and secretly sourced reports about whether rookie Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was insane, crazy, out of his mind, or perfectly justified to have benched quarterback Donovan McNabb in the final two minutes of a loss 10 days ago to the lowly, tatterdemalion Detroit Lions. (I’ve been waiting for years to use those adjectives in tandem; thanks, Roger Angell.)
Because, as we know, there’s no middle ground in sports journalism. People often remark how the scarcity of NFL games makes the league more attractive. Nature abhors a vacuum, so the weeklong gap between contests forces fans and writers to overanalyze or just gin up something to say. Mike Shanahan is normally a two-tool quote, empty and dull. But when you equivocate as much as he has about McNabb, and when those equivocations manage to make people think you’re implying that your African-American quarterback is both lazy and dumb, well, sweetheart, get me copy.
For the record, Shanahan has the right to bench whoever his eyes and his instincts and his assistant coaches tell him deserves to be benched at whatever moment he deems appropriate. All the bloviation in the sports media won’t change that. As Sally Jenkins wrote in her newspaper’s 11 millionth column on the subject, “why should [McNabb’s] hold on his job be inviolable?” The short answer is that it shouldn’t. But it is worth noting that Shanahan has been down the road before. Nate, in 2006, when you were an actual player for the Denver Broncos and I was a summertime interloper, Shanahan benched another veteran quarterback in the middle of the season. And that team was 7-4 at the time, not (as with the current Redskins) two minutes from 4-4.
While the situations aren’t quite parallel, the circumstances surrounding the demotions of McNabb and our old friend, new dad, and handball maven Jake Plummer aren’t entirely dissimilar. McNabb was benched for journeyman Rex Grossman, and Plummer for can’t-miss (hah) rookie Jay Cutler. But in both cases Shanahan publicly questioned the work ethic of his veterans. McNabb, the coach said, wasn’t familiar enough with the team’s two-minute drill terminology. Plummer’s commitment was suspect because he had attended only 85 percent of voluntary offseason workouts.
“Yeah, I missed some workouts. And you know what?” Plummer told me a few days after his benching. “Mike Shanahan, you can kiss my fucking ass for being pissed at that. … But, hey, he felt I crossed him in some way. Once you do that, he’ll never let those things go. If you cross him in some way, he’ll hold on to that more than the times you’ve done good by him.”
My heart started racing when Plummer spoke those words into my tape recorder. And I have a feeling some writer somewhere might experience a similar thrill courtesy of McNabb after this season. God, I love the NFL. Patriarchal management structure plus revolving-door rosters plus ravenous public plus limited product equals guaranteed bursts of earnestness plus sanctimony plus stupidity plus resentment plus drama. And the violence, too. No wonder people tune in.
Time to get off the bench, Nate. One week, the fourth estate says (well, I say) that the NFL is committing medical malpractice by allowing the tetragenarian quarterback Brett Favre to keep playing. The next, the narcissistic Viking throws for more yards in a game than ever before in his 236-year career. How would you have felt about sharing a locker room with Favre’s ego, not to mention his id? And if you’re as sick as I am of the old Mississippi farmer, tell us what happens on a football team that falls apart like the Cowboys. Does an NFL collapse occur, in Hemingway’s hackneyed phrase, gradually and then suddenly? Or is it more of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez thing, a chronicle of a death foretold?