Ta-Nehisi, you make a great point about big hits and NFL mythmaking. After reading your post, I looked up Ronnie Lott on YouTube and found this hit on Giants tight end Mark Bavaro from 1990—a textbook annihilation of a defenseless receiver.
Two decades ago, of course, the term “defenseless receiver” hadn’t been invented. This is how color man Dan Dierdorf narrated the Lott hit on instant replay:
Mark Bavaro pays a huge price. Huge price. Watch Ronnie Lott—bang! (Chuckles.) There is not much worse in this game than going down the middle, having the ball overthrown, and you are hung out to dry. And few people take you to the laundromat like Ronnie Lott.
Now compare that to Dierdorf’s analysis on Sunday, when Saints tight end Jimmy Graham got hit above the shoulders:
They may get a personal foul at the end of this, helmet to helmet. I think Danieal Manning comes in with a helmet-to-helmet [hit] while Jimmy Graham is still in that defenseless receiver position. … Jimmy Graham did not have an opportunity to become a runner, and every player in the league has been lectured about that.
Dierdorf’s description here is detached and clinical—no giggling, no one-liners about laundry. Those two clips, and those two commentary tracks, illustrate how the game has changed in the last 20 years. It’s not that broadcasters and fans have only just learned that blows to the head are dangerous. We’ve always known that. The difference is that it’s no longer socially acceptable to ignore the danger. (It is bizarre, though, that home crowds—like the Saints’ faithful—have a tendency to go bonkers when their receivers get destroyed over the middle. Fifteen yards and an automatic first down—that’s reason to celebrate.)
Announcers are still allowed to applaud big hits, so long as the hits aren’t the wrong kind of big. On Monday night, Jon Gruden slobbered over Redskins safety LaRon Landry: “Watch him … just splatter [Cowboys receiver] Laurent Robinson on the sidelines.”
Landry’s splattering of Robinson—a helmet to the chest, just as the ball hit the receiver’s hands—slipped through a narrow window of legality. A few inches higher and a half-second later, and Gruden would’ve said that how every player in the league has been lectured about those kinds of hits. Ta-Nehisi, you grew up worshipping Ronnie Lott, but it’s got to be harder for this generation’s kids to swoon over players like Danieal Manning and LaRon Landry. The thin line between a great play and a fine makes it too morally complicated to root for a safety. It’s just easier to pull on a Calvin Johnson jersey.
If we can’t root for decapitations any longer—and I should emphasize that this is a good thing—then what kind of old-school, tough-guy football stuff are announcers left to revere? The Jacksonville-Carolina game, played in a monsoon in Charlotte, offered one answer. “This is one of the things I truly love about football,” Steve Beuerlein said during the second quarter of the CBS broadcast, as the field turned into a bathtub. “What other sport would you see guys out there—grown men out there sloshing around, rolling around in the mud?”
Bad-weather football plus good teams equals the NFL playoffs. Bad-weather football plus bad teams equals the Pop Warner regional quarterfinals. In the second quarter, Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert threw an almost ludicrously bad interception, one that represented failures of both thought and execution. First, the Jaguars rookie pump-faked, drawing Panthers safety Sherrod Martin to the right side of the field. Gabbert then tossed a pop fly to the exact spot where he’d initially pretended to throw the ball. Martin, having bought the “fake,” had five seconds to park himself and make the catch. Luckily for Gabbert, CBS’ rain-saturated cameras could barely track the flight of the ball. It’s almost as if it never happened. Almost.
Along with reveling in gridiron slop, broadcasters can never resist praising a player who suits up in spite of a punctured lung. Tough-guy Tony Romo aside, Monday’s Redskins-Cowboys game—an 18-16 win for Dallas—was also a carnival of ineptitude. Dallas and Washington are both 2-1, and both teams are absolutely terrible. We’re far enough away from the lockout that everyone has stopped talking about the decrease in practice time affecting quality of play. Well, to my eyes, a lot of guys on the Cowboys and Redskins could use more practice. That’s especially true for the less-experienced players, the ones who would’ve presumably benefited most from organized off-season workouts. Dallas center Phil Costa (one career start before this season) couldn’t figure out how to snap the ball, and Cowboys receiver Kevin Ogletree (who now has 17 career catches) kept running the wrong routes. For the Cowboys’ sake, this is hopefully nothing that a little leadership—i.e., Tony Romo pointing and yelling a lot—can’t fix.