I’d love to tell you guys what NFL stories I’ve found most intriguing, but I don’t want to get called out for perpetuating stale media narratives. OK, here goes: Every team with a losing record needs to put in its backup quarterback. But that’s crazy, you’re saying. The backup quarterback is the second-best quarterback on the team! Nice try, conventional thinker—the second-string signal caller will give his team “a spark.” Also: How about all of this parity? I’ve noticed that some years there are teams with undefeated records, and other years there are no teams with undefeated records. I find this extremely important and meaningful for reasons I can’t explain. Another strange twist this season—there are several coaches who we all thought were geniuses, yet have proved they are not geniuses because of their lousy 2010 records. Man, those coaches are dumb.
Which brings me to the Raiders. Before the start of this season, there was no NFL head coach more clueless than Tom Cable and no executive more outdated and absurd and incompetent and creepy than Al Davis. This year’s high-functioning Oakland team has either revealed that the Raiders’ braintrust is a lot more shrewd than we thought or shown that world-class athletes can thrive in spite of high-level dysfunction. I choose to believe the latter, because Cable is an alleged domestic abuser, and I prefer to live in a universe in which bad people are not instrumental in leading their teams to success in the AFC West.
The biggest change in Raider-land from 2009 to 2010 has been the departure of No. 1 draft pick-turned- walking fat joke JaMarcus Russell. All the yukking about Russell’s girth and his taste for purple drank has served as a nice diversion from the supposed franchise player’s pitiable life path. (If Fox’s Celebrity Boxing still existed, I’m certain that Russell and Ryan Leaf would’ve reached their Thrilla in Manila by now.) Last week, the 25-year-old Russell showed up on a list of washed-up dudes the Redskins brought in for a tryout as part of the ritual public shaming/show trial of Donovan McNabb. As always, the fat QB was the punch line—and you thought McNabb had poor cardiovascular fitness!
Yes, JaMarcus Russell’s career is clearly a joke at this point. And yes, the Raiders are playing better in large measure because he’s no longer a fixture around the locker room buffet. But the way we talk about his demise is a reminder that the washout pro athlete—particularly the washout pro athlete who washes out with $31.5 million in guaranteed money—is one of the least sympathetic figures in American life.
And it’s not like we sympathize with players when they’re hurt, either. The ritualized denigration of athletes who can’t stay healthy—let’s all enjoy this SI.com gallery of the “NFL’s All Injury-Prone Team“—makes me wonder whether the outrage over head injuries is genuinely felt or purely rhetorical. As the ratings clearly show, nobody’s turning off their television because they can’t bear to watch the helmet-to-helmet hits.
Traditionally, concussions haven’t changed how the game is played. Paralysis is a different story. In 1978, the Patriots’ Darryl Stingley was paralyzed after a collision with Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum. In an obituary for Tatum, who died of a heart attack this July, ex-Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks argued that the hit “was a forerunner for some of the changes in rules that exist today that are more protective of receivers, especially if there is head-to-head-type contact.” And after Kevin Everett’s 2007 neck injury, the league instituted the “Kevin Everett Rule,” banning the wedge on kickoff returns.
Maybe this year’s midseason rule changes are a sign that we’re at the dawn of a more enlightened age, one in which fans and league poobahs take brain injuries seriously. But I’m guessing it will take a horrific injury to a star player—or, perhaps more realistically, a bunch of horrific injuries to a bunch of star players—before fans’ supposed disgust turns into a legitimate impulse to turn off the plasma screen. But so long as people keep watching in record numbers, the NFL will look the same in 2020 as it does in 2010.