I do find the NFL entertaining, Nate, but that’s probably because I never had to play for Eric Mangini. I’ve been studying Mangini’s mantras on the off chance he comes to my office this afternoon and starts yelling at the staff indiscriminately. (When is it OK to split an infinitive? It’s never OK! Who do you think you are, Raymond Chandler?) The Browns coach’s maxims sound less like football-field-appropriate motivational tools than things your dad might shout after you do a C- job cleaning the garage. My favorite: “Discipline isn’t something you do to somebody, it’s something you do for somebody.” Thank you, sir! May I have another?
Back to the NFL as entertainment: The games are a lot more fun to watch, I’ve found, when you have a DVR for commercial-and-Joe-Theismann avoidance. Alas, no fast-forward button yet invented can completely silence a self-satisfied color man. (I guess that’s what the mute button’s for. Anyway, just indulge me for a minute.) During last night’s Ravens-Falcons broadcast on NFL Network, Theismann continually shouted that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco should throw the ball to Todd Heap. There were two potential outcomes here, neither one of them palatable for the home viewer. First, the Ravens could repeatedly overlook their tight end, a defiant act that would only encourage Theismann to scream longer and louder. Alternately, they could throw to Heap, leading the ex-quarterback to praise his own genius strategy. The eventual result—keep it away from Heap for much of the game, then find him for a key touchdown pass—was the worst of all possible scenarios. I hate you, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Aside from the obnoxious bleatings from the broadcast booth, a televised NFL game is a remarkable thing to watch. Thanks to the wonders of modern broadcasting, you can consume every snap of every game in crystal-clear high-definition, from 46 different angles, at replay speeds that show a level of minutiae that could be improved upon only with in-game electron microscopy. Tom, you’ve been writing about the arbitrary way in which the league enforces its player-protection rules. Rather than reveal each play’s authentic outcome, all of this technology spotlights the hidden uncertainty and randomness in every corner of the game. When you can assess the size and coloration of each pimple on the back of the offensive tackle’s neck, it’s hard to be swayed by the faux precision of the officials’ spotting of the ball after a running play.
In the NFL circa 2010, we compromise by making everything reviewable—the call on the field is just the first rough draft of pro football history. The big exception here, obviously, is the decision to throw (or to refrain from throwing) a flag. Considering that the refs could realistically call a half-dozen penalties on each play, this gap in the procedure pretty well undermines the idea that we can ever booth-review our way to objective truth. After the game, the NFL Network and ESPN panels debated whether Roddy White should have been called for offensive pass interference on Atlanta’s game-winning touchdown. We quibble over penalties because, though we acknowledge the game’s fundamental unfairness, we can never fully accept it. Ravens fans will grouse about Thursday’s non-call because the refs’ answer is always the same: Because I said so. (Now that I think of it, maybe Eric Mangini should become a zebra after the Browns fire him: Illegal procedure isn’t something you call on somebody, it’s something you call for somebody.)
We’ve talked a bit about where football will be in 10 or 20 or 50 years. Will the players all be helmetless? Will rich kids, as per Malcolm Gladwell, stop playing the game? Will kickers and punters be outfitted with jetpacks for some reason? (Intuiting Stefan’s fantasy.)
I got to thinking about the evolution of the game while watching the Ravens’$2 350-pound nose tackle Haloti Ngata try to tackle Atlanta’s startlingly stocky running back Michael Turner. While it’s hard to imagine defensive linemen getting any huger or ball carriers getting any stockier, they were probably saying the same thing in the days of Mean Joe Greene and Larry Csonka. Today’s NFL has contorted players into such outlandish body types that it seems plausible to project a gridiron future in which 600-pound undifferentiated blobs try to tackle three-foot-tall stumps with no arms or legs. (Not to worry, Nate—there will always be room for a svelte, pass-catching tight end!)
Rather than imagine the NFL’s dystopian future—although, who knows, maybe blob-on-stump ball would be fun to watch—I’m going to do my best to conjure a happy ending. What do I like about the NFL? I like rooting for the team that my friends and family and hometown root for. I like watching a great offense run the two-minute drill. I like a well-blocked screen pass and a well-timed blitz. And I can say sincerely that I don’t care to see a wide receiver get bayoneted as he runs across the middle of the field. Every fan loves to see the opposing quarterback get pummeled—maybe there’s a bit of bloodlust at work here, but it’s mostly a joyful moment because the enemy’s been forced to punt. The violence of an open-field kill shot, though, outweighs whatever happy down-and-distance-related outcome may result from the pass catcher’s spleen-rupturing. It’s probably impossible to legislate big hits out of the game. If the NFL somehow managed to do it, though, I hope I wouldn’t be the only fan who starts cheering louder.