Great NFL Coaches: Belichick and Walsh

“The Patriots won, because they cheated,” Patriots’ haters say when asked to explain the unprecedented level of success the Patriots enjoyed between 2001 and 2018. I am not a Pats fan, but I am not a hater. I did not enjoy the long-term level of success they achieved, but I did appreciate it from afar. As much as I’d love to join the chorus of the haters, the cheating charge doesn’t explain the nine Super Bowl appearances made in the Belichick, Brady, and Kraft era. Even if they were 100% guilty of the offenses the NFL found (“And those were the times they got caught!” haters add) it doesn’t taint their six (SIX!) super bowl trophies. Even the most outspoken Pats hater has a tough time explaining how underinflated balls helped the Patriots appear in eight straight AFC Championship games between 2011 and 2018. “Tom Brady could grip the ball better,” they say. So, underinflated balls explains how the Patriots managed to achieve the only undefeated 16-game regular season, and the fact that they came one miraculous play away from beating the hottest team in football that year? During the Kraft, Brady, and Belichick era, the Patriots completed 19 consecutive winning seasons from 2001 to 2019, and they boast a .784 winning percentage against their division opponents. In Brady’s 18 seasons as a starter, the Patriots played in 50% of those Super Bowls, and they won 33% of them. Charging them with cheating might make those of us who grew tired of seeing them in the Super Bowl feel better, but somewhere deep in our heart (in an area no one will ever be able to see) we know it doesn’t explain that level of success sufficiently.

Hockey fans gave me one explanation about a decade ago. Hockey fans, not hockey insiders or analysts, but fans suggested that they thought their team had a better chance of winning in the coming year based on some of the hierarchical changes their team made in the off season. I always knew, in the back of my mind, how important everyone from the general manager down to the scouts was, but I didn’t consider how institutional they were to the long-term success of my team.

A professional team in sports have a few winning seasons here and there if they’re lucky enough to draft some key players and surround them with enough talent. They might even win a championship or two if the ball bounces the right way. If they don’t have the organizational structure of talented people throughout the hierarchy, they’re not going to win long term. As Jeff Benedict’s The Dynasty points out owners, general managers, talent scouts, and everyone in-between build a dynasty. The owner, in the case of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, was a businessman who had an obvious eye for talent. He also knew that after he found and hired that talent, his job was to back away and give them enough room to succeed. Some professional sports’ owners display too much micro level management (Jerry Jones), and some are too macro (Arthur Blank). As The Dynasty points out, Coach Bill Belichick made unpopular and jaw-dropping moves throughout the dynasty years, and Kraft didn’t approve of many of them, but he allowed his hire as coach/general manager to make whatever decisions he needed to make to sustain success. Those moves, more often than not, panned out over the long term.

One thing The Dynasty does not cover (because it’s probably of no interest to anyone but the football junkie) is the plethora of talent that Belichick and co., managed to find in the late rounds of the NFL Draft and in the various groups of undrafted free agents (UDFAs) that the Patriots hired. Were they lucky? Luck is involved of course, as even the best NFL scouts have a poor batting average, but the sheer number of successful moves the Patriots made in this regard that eventually paid off is an astounding comment on their long-term success. A number of my Patriot hating friends would love to claim that the Patriots might have been the luckiest team in NFL history in this regard. For twenty years though? I heard that Tom Brady once looked around the huddle of his teammates on offense and said, “How many of us are late round picks and UDFAs?” Look at Patriots’ rosters throughout those 20 years. How many of their players on their roster were late round picks and UDFAs? Now, take that number and compare it to the rest of the NFL? The Patriots use multiple sources, both inside and outside the organization to inform their moves, but how many of those in-house advisers went off to other teams? How many of them were able to maintain that level of success picking players for other teams? Is it all about Belichick’s final say, or were Belichick and his coaches able to take those players to another level? How many of those same players went onto other teams to achieve the same level of success? How many coaches, from Belichick’s tree, went onto success with other teams?

If Belichick is such a genius, why didn’t he do it in Cleveland? What author Jeff Benedict points out in Dynasty is that Belichick couldn’t do what owner Robert Kraft did, Robert Kraft couldn’t do what Belichick did, and neither of them could do what Tom Brady did. The dynasty of the last two decades was a matter of stars aligning perfectly. If Robert Kraft didn’t buy the team, Tom Brady probably would’ve left the team after a few years, as he and Belichick didn’t see eye to eye on some matters and Kraft did everything he could to keep them together as long as possible. If Belichick remained a Browns or Jets coach, Robert Kraft’s Patriots might have won a Super Bowl or two, but six? If Brady went to another team, the Patriots might have won a Super Bowl or two, but six? Tom Brady might have won a Super Bowl on his own, but six of them? As The Dynasty points out, the Patriot dynasty was all about the stars aligning from the top down and a number of people played a role, but most of those people came and went, and the three most important players stayed for almost twenty years.     

“Bunch of cheaters is what they are,” just about every Patriots hater says anytime the subject of Patriots’ long-term, sustained success over twenty years comes up. “Right on!” is what I’d love to say before giving that feller a mean, emotional high-five. I’d love to say that the reason the Patriots always beat my team is because they cheated in big ways and small ones, but it just seems too easy.

The Patriots were accused of filming the signals of the opposing teams’ defensive coordinators. An important note here is that the general practice of filming opposing coaches wasn’t illegal, but they couldn’t do it from their sidelines.  

Another element of what we called Spygate is that the Patriots filmed the Rams’ walkthrough practice before 2002 in Super Bowl XXXVI. If you call filming a team’s walk-through practice, before a game cheating, then the Patriots allegedly cheated, but this opposing team’s walk-through practice occurred on the field, in pre-game warmups. That practice was available to everyone, and if the other team suspected the Patriots of being cheaters, why did they reveal secrets about their game plan on the field for all to see? They should suspect the Patriots of cheating. They should suspect every team of cheating and adjust accordingly. If this practice provided the Patriot’s enough information to win a game isn’t it on the opposing team to prevent the Patriots from learning their secret game plan. “It was against NFL rules for the Patriots to film that practice session.” True, but if this action led the Patriots to win even some of the games they did, then I have to wonder why my favorite team didn’t do it.

Another cheating scandal is Deflategate. Deflategate is quite simply a joke that Patriots’ that haters cling to to diminish the Patriots’ incomparable level of success. In both of these cases, the Patriots faced unprecedented scrutiny in the aftermath of the accusations, and in the case of Spygate, they went onto lose the Super Bowl thanks to a play some consider one of the best, most fluky plays in Super Bowl history. In the aftermath of Deflategate, they went onto win the Super Bowl.

The first thing Patriots’ haters and lovers, and all sports’ fans should admit is that we take some of these issues much too serious. Sports are a pastime. The literal definition implies that we are supposed to watch football to pass the time until the more serious things in life come along. The human being has been distracting themselves from the daily drama of their lives for centuries. Romans called it the bread and circus effect. As long as Romans were supplied food and entertainment, the politicians could get away with whatever they want. How many Americans know every single detail of these controversies, versus those who know similar minutiae about local, state and federal politics? With that level of apathy, how far are is America away from the fiddling politicians of Rome that some suggest led to the fall of that civilization? When I witness two grown men argue over politics to the point that they almost come to blows, I can’t help but think of The Simpsons’ kids saying, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” on a car trip.

Bill Walsh

When it comes to professional football, we consider former 49ers coach Bill Walsh a genius among geniuses. Some place him up on the Mount Rushmore of the greatest NFL coaches of all time. Bill Walsh had a long and storied career coaching in the NFL and college, and he earned many of the accolades he achieved in his career. As another coach, Bill Parcells, once said, “You are who your record says you are.” Parcells also said, “Once you win a Super Bowl, no one can ever take that away from you.” No one can take Bill Walsh’s three Super Bowl rings away from him, and no one can deny that the man won 60.9% of his regular season games. He won 10 of his 14 postseason games along with six division titles, three NFC Championship titles, and three Super Bowls. He was NFL Coach of the Year in 1981 and 1984, and in 1993, and the NFL elected him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bill Walsh headed a team while coaching the 49ers that selected some great players. A number of those players played in a number of pro bowls, and a number of them ended up in the Hall of Fame. Other than selecting Hall of Fame talent, some experts credit Walsh with developing the West Coast Offense, but he even admitted he based his system it on a system developed by Don Coryell, called “Air Coryell”. Still, Walsh took the influence, matched it to his talent on the field and won three Super Bowls and an overall winning percentage of 60.9%. Did Walsh coach those players up to the point that they were better than they were? Their winning percentage in the regular season and the post season, in a highly competitive National Conference, says yes. Walsh’s coaching tree also suggests he was a great leader. Walsh, like all great coaches, benefitted from talent, great advisers and scouts, and a whole lot of luck. 

As for the talent he/they selected, no scout can guarantee that a college player’s talent will translate to the pro game. In that vein, we can say that selecting Joe Montana was something of a gamble. Yet, Joe Montana led Notre Dame’s 1977 team to a national championship. He was hardly a jewel in the rough. Another heralded move by Walsh was the trade for Steve Young. Steve Young’s talent didn’t appear to translate well in the NFL, as he had some poor years in Tampa Bay, and various NFL insiders deemed him a bust. With that in mind, we could say that Walsh’s trade involved something of a gamble, but Young finished his college career at BYU with the most passing yards in BYU history, he finished second in Heisman votes in his senior year at BYU, and he was selected number one in the USFL draft. He was hardly “a find” by Bill Walsh.

When it came time to select what some considered a true jewel in the rough, in the 2000 draft, to succeed the recently retired Steve Young, Walsh advised the 49ers to select Giovanni Carmazzi. Bill Walsh loved Carmazzi. He said he thought, “[Carmazzi] was a lot like Steve Young, only bigger.” Prior to the Carmazzi pick, Bill Walsh rejoined the 49ers front office and encouraged the 49ers to take Carmazzi with the 65th pick. Who, in the 49ers organization, would go against Bill Walsh? With the difficult transition from college to pro, it’s unfair to put a “miss” on any person’s resume, but imagine if Walsh “spotted” a starting quarterback from a power five conference who made numerous comebacks in his collegiate career versus a quarterback who some considered extremely raw from a Division I-AA school. Imagine what “spotting” Tom Brady would’ve done to Bill Walsh’s otherwise impressive resume.

To be fair to Walsh, many judged Brady almost comically lacking in athletic ability. He was the prototypical definition of a drop back, stay in the pocket quarterback and many believed the game was “now” so fast and the quality of offensive lineman was dropping so precipitously that every NFL now needed a quarterback with Steve Young’s athleticism. Walsh’s thought process probably accounted for that on both players when he encouraged the 49ers to select Giovanni Carmazzi with the 65th pick. (Giovanni Carmazzi never played a down in a regular season game.) Not that it matters, but the Brady family were 49ers’ season ticket holders for 24 years prior to the 2000 draft, and Tom Brady was a die-hard Montana, then Young fan, and the Bradys were hurt when the 49ers did not select the local boy from San Mateo. Brady was, at the very least, a hometown kid gone good in the California area. We have to imagine that his athletic accomplishments at Michigan put Tom Brady’s name in the 49ers draft room, and we can only guess that Walsh tired of the “Tom Brady conversation”.

Imagine if this genius among geniuses saw something most people missed in Brady, and his recommendations involved the 49ers going from Montana, as the starting quarterback, to Young, and then to Brady. Imagine if Brady accomplished half of what he did in New England for the 49ers organization. Those of us who loathed the 49ers in the 80’s and 90’s wouldn’t be able to tolerate the “genius among geniuses” discussions. This article wouldn’t be possible, because there would be no denying that Walsh was an unqualified genius.  Had the Patriots not selected Brady, we can only guess that Brady loved the 49ers organization so much that he may have accepted just about any undrafted free agent contract from the 49ers.

Let’s Make Football Violent Again

“Make football violent again,” was a hat the safety for the Minnesota Vikings, Andrew Sendejo, wore in an NFL training camp. The instinctive reaction we might have to such a call is that Sendejo is trying to be provocative, for no one who knows anything about violence would condone it in anyway. We might also say that, as a professional football player, Sendejo is setting a poor example for the youth who look up to him. Our society should be moving in the exact opposite direction, others might say, especially when it comes to young men. 

An argument that condones violence in any way will never make its way to a broadcasting booth of any kind, unless it is to condemn it, but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit, when it comes to football at least. If the argument did make it on air, in some form, we have to imagine that the broadcasters would say, “I don’t condone violence, but …” to distance themselves from Sendejo’s argument, but there is a but argument that is worthy of some consideration. The but argument focuses on the unpleasant fact that some young men have violent impulses, and they need an outlet, or a ‘somewhat’ controlled and monitored environment, to indulge that primal impulse for violence. Most audiences don’t want to hear anything about that. They prefer a more rational discussion that focuses on ways to make would young men less violent in a way that might help make our world less violent. No rational discussion by a professional in any field would focus on the need for an outlet for violent activity.

The well-intentioned opponents of the game now know that football is too entrenched for them to make any strides with regard to banning football from the high school level on up. Yet, they are making strides at banning tackle football in youth groups, and they are using the banner of ‘player safety’ to lessen the impact of some of the more violent hits in the game from the high school level on up. Proponents of the traditional game know that some measures are required to make the game safer, as athletes become stronger and faster, but as these measures to remove violence from the game progress, proponents warn, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

We’ve all heard horrific tales of the wide array of what can happen on a football field, and we’re all sympathetic to the players and their families affected by it. Among these stories, are those that involve brain injuries, including concussions and repeated severe concussions that could lead to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). We’ve heard that various forms of CTE have ruined lives. We’ve heard neurologists state that scientific studies of the harm football causes young people is now irrefutable. We’ve had neighbors tell us that these studies scare them so much, they won’t let their children play the game. The NFL has heard all of this too, and they’ve made substantial rule changes to try to lessen the violent impact of the game, in the hopes of influencing college football, and high school football officials to follow suit.

The ‘be careful what you wish for’ crowd has heard all of these arguments too, and they’re sensitive to them. No one wants to see a young life affected to the degree we’ve witnessed in far too many instances, but when esteemed neurologists list sports’ alternatives for concerned parents, proponents suggest that they fail to recognize the need young boys have to hit one another in a violent manner. Those other sports might satisfy the need young people have for competitive athletic activity, team play, and various other character-building exercises that build self-esteem, but they don’t satisfy the primal impulses young men have to commit violent acts on one another.

Those of us, who played an inordinate amount of unnecessarily violent, pickup games of tackle football, know that football was our favorite way to satiate that primal need for violence. We didn’t know anything about these beneficial qualities, and we didn’t know the possible harm we were doing to ourselves when we played these games, but we saw our non-football playing friends go out for the evening just to “crack some skulls.” We thought they were joking, or engaging in some false bravado, but they had all this pent-up rage, and this general sense of animosity and anger that they couldn’t explain. They needed to unleash in an impulsive, irrational manner. They wanted to hurt someone, and they always got hurt in the process, but they wore their bruises and open cuts as symbols of valor. They failed to adequately explain what a rush it was to the rest of us, because they probably couldn’t understand it well enough to explain it. The only thing they knew was that they gained respect from their peers for their violent tendencies, and it did wonders for their self-esteem. They also enjoyed an element of team spirit in some cases. Those fight nights gained them what the rest of us attained playing football.    

“No one is saying that if we ban football or make it less violent, it will automatically lead to more violent young men, but if you think it will make them less violent, be careful what you wish for,” proponents say to parents who will not allow their children to play football. When our grade school banned football on the playground, we played kill the man with the ball. Our school administrators caught on, and they banned that. Soon after that, we played kill the man with the pine cone. If we dilute football to the point of hopscotch, proponents say, boys will find a way to hit each other, tackle each other, or some way to inflict pain on one another, because we cannot legislate the impulsive, primal nature out of boys and young men. Most parents, who raise their children in safe, happy climates cannot understand why they have violent tendencies, and we might not remember why we did, but football proponents suggest that the sport satisfies something in us that no other non-contact sport can.

Even though this impulsive need for an outlet to indulge violent tendencies has existed throughout human history, we have to imagine that B.C. humans didn’t want to discuss it in polite company either. The games the cavemen and the ancient Romans played were more violent, of course, and modern man might think he stands above that which occurred back then, and we might have a more advanced brain than those who sit below us in the animal kingdom, but the primal need for an outlet still exists in some. This conversation is so unpleasant and uncomfortable that the major broadcasts networks will never cover it on one of their pregame broadcasts, and I don’t think we’ll ever hear this as a topic on one of the all too numerous sports radio programs, because it feeds into the portrayal of young men as primal beasts. Yet, we all know this unpleasant side of young men exists, and if we don’t provide them a monitored, somewhat controlled method of channeling their impulses and needs, it might result in other unintended consequences our society doesn’t want to consider.

Football 101: Stratagies

“Why do they continue run the ball into the middle of the pile?” a friend of mine once asked after watching a running back crash into the line for a two-yard loss.  “If they are going to run, why don’t they run around the pile?”

As with any sports-related questions, the answer involves a number of variables, and specifics regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the respective players on the offense, from the abilities of the Running Back, to the ability of those on the offensive line to block for him.  The offense also has to gauge the speed and ability of the defenders to beat them to the corner. Long story short, the offense would love to run around the corner.  It would also love to gain a ton of yards up the middle.  Even if it doesn’t, however, a run up the middle serves a purpose.

350px-Linemen.svgIt may also sound elementary to suggest that the offense wants to have every single defensive player confused, but that is the purpose of the run up the middle.  For those that love chess, even an unsuccessful run up the middle can be the equivalent to sacrificing a pawn to get the opponent to move themselves into a weak position.

If the offense attempts to run up the middle often enough, it hopes to create enough confusion in the minds of the defensive backfield that they make an erroneous first step up and in to stop that run.  One erroneous step may be all that’s needed for the timing of the offense’s passing game.  Creating confusion in the minds of the all of the defense is important, of course, but it is crucial to the success of the offense that those players that are positioned in what is called the defensive backfield –the linebackers (LBs), the free safety (FS), and the Strong Safety (SS) in the diagram above– be confused.

The players in the defensive backfield are unblocked on the line of scrimmage and they have free reign as to how they are going to approach the next play.  If they are confused and they make an incorrect guess, holes in the defensive backfield will open up for the offense to exploit in the passing game.

The timing of most offenses require a successful running game, but even a less than successful running game can open up holes for a Quarterback to pass in, if the members of the defensive backfield are required to step up and in to assist the front four defenders (the defensive line) in their attempts to stop the run.  So, the next time your team continues to make futile attempts to run the ball into the middle of the pile, wait for the next play before you kick that hole in the wall.  If that Quarterback fakes the ball to the Running Back, (a play-action fake is what it’s called) and the Linebackers take a step up and in to stop that play, you’ll realize that the Offensive Coordinator (the coach that decides which plays the offense will run) made that previous call to set up this pass.  For when that Linebacker steps up and in to stop that running play from going into the middle again, he opens up a *hole behind him that the Quarterback will pass the ball in.  (*This hole is also called a lane and/or a window.)

The offense must keep the defense guessing whether the offense is going to run or pass.  You may hear a broadcaster refer to this as “keeping pressure on the defense” or “keeping the defense on their heels.”  They may also refer to the defense stepping up and in as “the defense cheating” or the defense “creeping”, and that the offense must have a better mix of run and pass to prevent that.

As a result, if an offense has a decent mix of running yards gained and passing yards gained, that team wins more often than not.  Some offenses don’t need a perfect mixture, but most of them need just enough to establish a threat of something different to keep the defense guessing.  Most of them will acknowledge that they are not going to achieve a perfect mix of yards gained, based on the defenses’ proficiency, or their own deficiencies, but they know that they will be required to have a number of attempts in one of these two strategies to establish the necessary threat.  It is for this reason, that you often see networks provide graphics that suggest when a Running Back attempts to run the ball a certain number of times (regardless the amount of yards he gains) the percentage of victory for that team is high.

The chess match of play calling, and alignment, will often bear fruit in those seconds that occur just before, and immediately after, the snap.  This is where you’ll hear the term “cheating” used most often.  If members of the defensive backfield step back in the moments before a ball is snapped, or immediately after the snap, they are cheating back, believing that a pass will occur.  The more common use of “cheating”, however, occurs when the members of the defensive backfield creep up and into the line of scrimmage, believing that a run will occur.

Therefore, when an offense continues to “waste” a play by running the ball up into the middle of the line, for a futile two-yard gain, and they continue to do it without much success, you can be sure that they are attempting to prevent the LB’s, the FS, and the SS from sliding back into the holes that the Quarterback wants to throw the ball into.  To further this deception, a Quarterback may fake a hand-off to that Running Back to get a crucial one-to-two step creep, or cheat, up and in from the members of the defensive backfield.

“When are ‘we’ going to just admit that we can’t run the ball?” a novice fan may scream at the television.

Long story short, few teams can afford to just give up on the run.  Most offenses are not so loaded with talent that they can succeed with a play that the defense knows is coming.  Some are, of course, but what works for one team, will not work for the other, and vice-versa.  It’s a chess match.

Football 201: Prevent Defense Prevents Victory

“The only thing the prevent defense prevents is victory,” one fan said, quoting color commentator John Madden’s oft used condemnation of this defensive alignment.  

In week five of the 2015 season, the Atlanta Falcons allowed the Washington Redskins to march down the field, about forty-five yards in twenty-five seconds, to score a game-tying field goal.  The prevent defense failed once again.

The message boards on various Atlanta Falcons’ sites blew up with people screaming at the Atlanta Falcons Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith for allowing this to happen by employing the “disastrous” prevent defense in the closing moments of regulation.

“Why do they keep trying this?” Another fan asked.

That question goes to the heart of the answer: It works … most of the times.

“If you’re winning a game,” John Madden once said to add to his complaint, “You’re winning, because of your defensive strategy.  Why would you change that successful formula up in the closing moments of a game?”

John Madden was well known for speaking the language of the common man, and the common man has asked this question so often that it has earned an answer from a common man that has answered this question so often in his head that it’s percolated to a boil.

The Redskins had twenty-five seconds to get a field goal.  They completed three passes to get their field goal kicker in place for a fifty-two-yard field goal.  He made it.  Game tied.  The prevent defense failed, and Atlanta had to resort to an interception in overtime to defeat the Redskins.

It didn’t have to be that way, according to the common man, fan’s complaints on various Atlanta Falcons’ sites.  If the Falcons had had the courage to stick with the defense that had bottled up the Redskin passing game for much of the game, they wouldn’t have had to cross their fingers with hope that something miraculous would happen in OT.

On any given play, in a game of evenly matched opponents, one long pass can change the dynamic of a game.  Due to the nature of most offenses, they limit their attempts at such a pass to four-to-five times a game.  The risk of attempting this pass is such one that most offenses prefer to stick with the package of plays they have designed for short yardage gains, as most offenses don’t operate well in the desperation of third and long.

When an offense takes the field, down three points and twenty-five seconds left, they enter the “nothing to lose” chapter of their playbook.  We have nothing to lose now, so why don’t we try to throw the ball forty yards on every play.  Why wouldn’t we take the risk, since the rewards of our normal package are gone now?  We just need one of these plays to succeed.  If this were a game of Russian roulette, and success was defined as shooting yourself, wouldn’t you increase the number of bullets in that gun if given the choice?  You would have nothing to lose by doing so.

The Defensive Coordinator’s job at this point is to limit the chances of this one play succeeding.  He’s willing to concede that the offense will succeed with a couple of passes over the middle, but he needs to do everything he can to prevent the possibilities of that one huge play succeeding.  The answer to that is a prevent defense.

“I know all this, and everything you’ve just written is obvious,” some would say, “What’s also obvious is that the prevent defense never works.”

“If it never works, why do defensive coordinators around the country, and at all levels, keep using it?”  Answer, it is successful … most of the times.  A Defensive Coordinator would not put his job on the line, by placing his defense in a prevent alignment just ‘cuz, or just because others do it, or because it’s some sort of tradition.  The difference between you, the fan, and a John Madden calling a coach out when it doesn’t work, is that the Defensive Coordinator knows his flow charts and algorithms, and he knows that the statistical probabilities suggest that in this situation the unpopular prevent defense is the right call.

The prevent defense may give up some passes over the middle, and that may have cause your heart to flutter, as your defense surrenders thirty yards, and the other team gets a little too close for comfort, but they need forty-five.  They came up fifteen yards short, they lost.  Your team won, and they do, more often than not, by employing the prevent defense in the closing moments of a game.  That didn’t happen in the Atlanta vs. Washington game, but it does … most of the times.

If it had succeeded, as it often does, no one would’ve said a word, because the idea that a defense should be able to stop an offense from going forty-five yards in twenty-five seconds is not remarkable enough for commentary.

It’s not complicated. It’s football.

Sports reporters, sports broadcasters, and the sports media, in general, are up in arms. They don’t understand how you, the common NFL fan, can avoid caring about all these stories they’ve created to open your eyes to the true nature of the NFL. After all of the hard work they’ve put in to characterize your favorite players, your favorite team, the commissioner of the league, and the institutional culture surrounding them, you keep watching with your eyes wide shut. You don’t care. It’s the strangest thing.

This may be based on the fact that we don’t care about the NFL. We love the game, we love the games, and the teams and individuals who play those games, but we have disassociated them from the NFL, the league, and the daily soap opera that surrounds it. Perhaps that’s a small price that the NFL has paid for being so huge that some of us can do all of that and love the game, and not feel like we’re contradicting ourselves.

Atlanta Falcons fans wave “Rise Up” flags during an NFL Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on January 15, 2011.

Those who have watched, read, and listened to the sports media over the last couple of years have been inundated with NFL stories that will “officially, and unquestionably, begin the ending our enjoyment of the NFL.” When those stories come out, and we don’t abandon the game, the sports media moved onto that next story “that will tick the general public off so much that I don’t see how the NFL survives this without lasting damage to their product.” Even after the members of the media make that proclamation, and the next one, the numbers don’t decrease in the least. We stubborn, fans keep watching the game in record numbers.

The NFL is still the king of all sports. It’s so far ahead of the other professional sports, still, that the competition might need a James Webb Space telescope just to read their corporate strategies, and this is in the wake of three-to-four years of almost nonstop, negative media coverage. What is going on, these sports reporters keep asking. The answer is that the NFL is big, and huge, but not so huge that it affects the daily lives of people watching the sport to the point that they care.

To illustrate this, we need only look at the contrasting conditions that exist in the socially conscious world. In the socially conscious world, socially conscious consumers care. Socially conscious consumers now have websites, blogs, apps, and podcasts devoted to informing them of the latest socially conscious gossip. The socially conscious pay attention, they scour various information resources before making financial decisions, and they punish those who don’t fall in lock step. It’s become a huge business for those “who care” about what they care about, a business that much to the surprise of the socially conscious in the sports media, the common NFL fan takes no part in.

In the socially conscious world, the media are king makers. They can make or break a corporation, or an individual, with a couple lines here and there. With the right story, or an accumulation of stories, the media can drive a corporation out of business. The corporation may try to adjust their practices to fit in with the prevailing winds of our culture, but in the socially conscious world once the damage is done, it’s done.

When socially conscious stories encroach upon the stature of the NFL, it attempts to adjust to the prevailing winds of our culture accordingly, as any other corporation worried about the prospects of their product will. They sit players for infractions large and small, they fine them, and then they blast their socially conscious reactions out into the worldwide media for contrition. Few NFL fans care one way or another. Few of them care about the transgressions in the report. Few care about the contrition. And the confusing simplicity of this is, few care about the NFL. They just want to watch football.

Most common, NFL fans are not socially conscious consumers, and I write that in the most complimentary manner possible. They are mostly male, between the ages of 35-54, making less than 100k a year. They are hard-working people who pay little attention to politics, world affairs, or social issues in general. Opponents may charge that they are head-in-the-sand ostriches, and that may be true in a larger sense, but in a more revealing scope, I think we can surmise that they don’t pick and choose the social issues to care about. They don’t care about any of them. They are one of our most consistent demographics in our country. They tend to their backyards, and they expect you to do the same, whether you are their neighbor or the NFL. They may think a little less of you when you don’t weed and water properly, but that doesn’t mean that the next time you lean over the fence, they’re going to avoid you.

The common NFL fan may know a few of the players’ names. Some of them may know the high draft pick at left tackle, the weak side linebacker that can cover as well as he can tackle, and the 4.2, 40 star cornerback, and everyone knows the quarterback, but for the most part NFL games are won and lost by players whose names they will never know. They’re not as attached to these players as the media believes, in other words. Their kids might be, but they have created enough distance from the players that no one player can ruin the game with their off the field activities. The love of the game is not as in-depth for fans, as it is for reporters. For fans, it’s just football, and it really isn’t all that complicated.

Those in the sports media make the mistake of assigning their own “age of enlightenment” social conscious worldview to their audience. They believe that socially conscious consumers are indicative of the evolved, new earthling, or at the very least that this idea of a socially conscious consumer has made its way to the NFL fan. They’re “wrong”, as Greg Cote says. “All of it.” We love the game of football. We appreciate watching talent at its highest level, but we don’t care about the NFL in a manner that if they don’t handle their controversies better, we’re going to abandon them. We’re not going to boo them when they take the field, depending on the charge, and we’re not going to applaud them when they come back … unless the collective they manage to violate one of our core tenets. 

We tune out when the NFL pregame shows start their broadcast with the latest “weight of the world” drama that has the whole NFL shook up. We don’t want to hear the perspective of this story from all four on-air personalities, and the sideline reporters’ latest quotes from the team’s equipment manager. We also don’t care about the human interest stories that follow these negative stories to inform us that not all NFL players are not as bad as inmate number 6843107347. We don’t care about the good, the bad, or the ugly. We want to watch a game of football, unless the collective they show display some sort of ingratitude for the fan that he or she can feel.

For the devout fans’ desire to learn X’s and O’s analysis, injury reports, and the occasional trash talk, we now have to turn to the internet. We turn to the place that allows us just the facts, or if they don’t, we have the option of only clicking on stories that provide just the facts and figures we want to know more about.

If I were a network programmer, I would experiment with a novel idea, a show called “Just Football!” It would be a jam-packed half hour (22 minutes with commercials) that contained two to three experts talking exclusively about the game. If a player was out, due to some drama, the anchor would say, “(That player) is out for the week!” He would say this with no more drama, and no more depth, than he would with a player that is injured for the week.

“No emotion,” would be the intro to my show’s commercial promo, “No political proselytizing, no jocularity between hosts, and no human interest stories!”

“Just football!” another, more charismatic voice would say to outro.

Word would get those two words out in the common NFL fan community, and the ratings would go through the roof.

We watch the NFL to escape the social studies of our culture. We don’t care if “our guy” is a good guy or a bad guy. We just want to know if he has the talent, and the physical or mental prowess, to get across a line, or to stop the other guy from getting across a line. If he committed a transgression, he should be punished accordingly, but we don’t care about the story, the intricacies of the story, or the social pressure that needs to be exerted to get these people to change. We just want football. It’s not complicated.

We’re not going to stop watching the game because someone did something bad, in other words, and we’re not going to start watching a game because a guy did something good. We’re not socially conscious viewers. If that were the case, we would’ve stopped watching this game long ago, because some of these players use excessive force when they hit one another.

Greg Cote, of the Miami Herald reports about this with some surprise:

“Voraciously, sports reporters and broadcasters keep sounding the first notes of the death knell of professional football. Forebodingly, they warn of the sport’s eroding credibility. Ominously, they say that player wrongdoing and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s missteps and mismanagement have served to fracture the public trust.

“Wrong, all of it.

“It turns out the public hardly cares.”

Greg Cote goes onto report, with an undercurrent of some surprise that NFL fans care about football.

The fan of the game didn’t care about concussion gate. All of the former NFL players –that now have on air personality jobs– preened themselves of the guilt of playing a contact sport by saying that they wouldn’t allow their children to play this violent game. This is now called virtue-signaling, and the anchors saying this were big time stars in their day. Those saying these things were the faces of the game … Pffft! didn’t make a dent.

We didn’t get mad at these former players, however, as we knew that their “look at me” editorials were simply attempts to establish their bona fides as a broadcaster that would help them transition away from being identified solely as a former-player. Those who lasted through the sermon, without flipping the channel, probably didn’t hold it against the former players. They likely didn’t care one way or another.

It also turns out, much to Mr. Cote’s surprise, that:

“Fans don’t need to trust (NFL commissioner Roger) Goodell to love football any more than most Americans need to adore a sitting president to love their country.”

Due to Goddell’s actions over the last couple of years, you would be hard-pressed to find too many common fans who haven’t heard of Roger Goddell, but you would also be just as hard-pressed to find many fans who care about him. I don’t pay attention to such things, but I’m guessing that if you polled NFL fans about the latest press release from the commissioner’s office, you would see figures like .04% see it as a positive for the league, .96% see it as a negative, 4% haven’t heard of it, and 95% don’t care.

Socially conscious consumers care about CEOs. They scour the position papers of these CEOs, and they read the analysis provided by socially conscious writers they trust. They focus a great deal of their attention on the CEO’s gender, race, and flossing habits. Most NFL fans don’t even know Roger’s middle name (Stokoe), because they don’t care. He’s not on the field, he’s not designing a defense, or an offense. He’s not the fan’s friend, or the fan’s enemy. He’s the commissioner of the NFL, equivalent to that fire hydrant on the end of their block. We know it’s there, and we know what it does, but we probably haven’t spent more than one accumulative minute of our lives thinking about it.

Some fans may have a love/hate relationship with Goddell, based on the players he and his commission decides to take off the field, but they’re not going to allow him to influence their enjoyment of the game. When the commissioner does step on the field to do a coin-flip, or whatever a commissioner does during the pregame, we might hear some cheers and some boos, but listen carefully to those boos. Those boos build, as the fans wake out of their pregame slumber. Every pregame ceremony involves three to four names, and 90% of the fans don’t hear the names being mentioned. They only look to the countdown clock that informs them when the game begins. When the booing begins, son turns to dad, dad turns to other fan, until heads around the stadium turn to the scoreboard to try and figure out why everyone’s booing. They join in, they laugh, and it’s fun. He’s an authority figure, and it’s fun to boo authority figures, but no fan of the game cares about him, unless he were to take part in violating the core tenets of the NFL’s core fan. My guess is if the more involved fans didn’t start the booing, the viewing audience at home would hear nothing as this lawyer/bureaucrat walks on the field. 

Greg Cote describes the bad seeds that have littered the headlines as “weeds in the garden, things to be uprooted”. I would go one step further. I would say that they’re checkers. Checkers, as opposed to chess, in that no individual pieces in the game of checkers are irreplaceable. The quarterback could be said to be irreplaceable for a game, or even for a year, but when that quarterback does go down, and his career is deemed over, the devout NFL fan’s focus shifts to the prospect of getting a great prospect in the next draft. That fan may visit that former player’s car dealership, or car wash, in the years that follow. He may even shake that man’s hand and thank him for providing the area’s fans so much joy over the years. For the most part, however, that fan will have already moved on to the next guy, and no member of the media, no commissioner, and “surprisingly” no player can taint that relationship they have with the game. Most of them know this. Most of the players, coaches, and fans know it’s not about them. The only ones confused by the conundrum of why the NFL remains so popular, regardless what they do, are those in the media, and they’re apparently up in arms about it.

[Editorial Update:] We still believe many of the tenets of this article, written on 8/15/2015, but recent evidence suggests this piece requires an asterisk. A complete rewrite is not necessary, in my humble opinion, as we still believe that no player, no matter how moral or immoral, can break the bond the NFL fan has with professional football, but we now add the asterisk that states, “Unless said player, or players, shows a level of ingratitude that the average fan considers a violation of said fan’s core tenets.”  

Most NFL stars have been stars for most of their lives, and they know a level of adoration most sports’ stars never will. These stars might assume that that love is unconditional, and for the most part it is, but as recent evidence suggests there are some principles that NFL fans consider such a staple that even their favorite star cannot violate it.

The average adult fan now knows that NFL stars are never going to be grateful to them for being a fan. The NFL star might pay symbolic homage to the fan, but we know that they take us for granted. We’ve come to accept this as the nature of the beast. As witnesses now know, it is possible to fray the bonds that seal this relationship. This article contains a note that suggests that no player, or players, can damage the bond NFL fans have with the league, but we now know that is not true.  

The media can try to make a dent, and the NFL commissioner can attempt to resolve that issue, and most NFL fans won’t care either way, but if the player shows an unprecedented level of ingratitude, most fans will leave, and some may never come back. We’ve all witnessed those TV’s permanently turned into the “off” position, on Sunday afternoons for a couple years now, even at Thanksgiving, and I don’t know when, or if, they will ever be turned back on. Congratulations, NFL players, you’ve proven me wrong. There is a way to do what I thought couldn’t be done. The otherwise ambivalent and apathetic fan base is now awoke, and they care more than I thought they would about a social issue.    

Is our lust for violence leading us to Hunger Games?

punchedThe “Hunger Games” story is based on a theme similar to those in the “Escape from New York” and “Running Man” stories that suggest that man will eventually regress back to our primal state where we will once again enjoy the pinnacle of violence in gladiator-style games.  Those that make such claims state that our insatiable lust for violence is exhibited by the fact that we don’t so much enjoy the hockey of the NHL anymore, as much as we enjoy the fights that occasionally break out; the crashes in NASCAR, as opposed to the race; and the hits in the NFL and boxing, as opposed to their strategies.  Some have claimed that the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) occurred as a result of too much strategy in boxing and not enough violence.  They state that those traditionally popular sporting events no longer feed our insatiable lust for violence, and that we have progressed to the point where we only enjoy the violent incidents that occur in these sports, and that this is one of the reasons that ESPN has succeeded on such a large scale.  If it’s true that our insatiable lust for violence is progressing, is our society on a trajectory to gladiator-style “Hunger Games”?

An indicator of this progression, some say, was the short-lived, Sunday Night Football pre-game segment called “Jacked Up!” “Jacked Up!” was an ESPN segment that focused on the most powerful, bone crushing NFL hits of the week, that had the commentators punctuating each hit with the words “Jacked Up!”

Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman once commented on the “Jacked Up!” segment, writing that ESPN commentators were: “Equivalent to citizens of 17th or 18th Century England enjoying a nice outing at a public hanging. And when the trap is released and the poor guy is hung, they’d all yell, “Jacked Up!”{2}

Some would say that it’s vital to correct the course we’re on by canceling segments like “Jacked Up!” that celebrate brutal hits, that we start placing rules on all hits in football, and that a school district in the “Live Free or Die” state New Hampshire legislates against dodge ball, “because of bullying concerns.”{1} It’s vital that we do these things, they say, so that we can correct the current course we’re on and make moves towards making our society a kinder and gentler one.

The theme of the “Hunger Games” story is that to prevent war, we must provide society some degree of violence.  The theme is that we (the society in the movie) need to satiate the need for violence, so that we may prevent the ultimate form of violence: war. It’s an apt theme to some degree:

“Young people, especially young men, need an outlet for their violent tendencies,” a former teacher of mine once said. “And football is the best outlet I’ve ever seen…Better than wrestling, boxing, or any other contact sport available to young men.”

As legislation and rules attempt to move us to a kinder, gentler society, are we “progressing” away from primal activities such as football?  Are “images of major, bone crunching NFL hits going the way of smoking in airplanes?” as one Rolling Stone writer suggested.  Are the measures we use to ban events that seed bullying, like Dodge ball, going to successfully change the trajectory of our culture so that we stave off an “Escape from New York”, “Hunger Games” style future, or are we incidentally creating one?

Anyone that has been bullied knows that there are some unfortunate supplements it offers a person. Will some bullying result in the lowered self-esteem of the victim, yes it will.  Will it cause some to harm themselves in ways that our society should not condone, yes it will.  Will it introduce some kids to the idea that the world can be an awful, mean place at times, yes it will. But will it prepare them for the awful, mean things adults will do to them in life when they become adults, yes it will. The unfortunate side effect to being bullied is that it usually doesn’t have the same devastating emotional impact the second time around.

If Tom Jones picks on you in second grade, and you survive his mental torture intact, chances are when Pat Thomas bullies you in the third grade the emotional devastation won’t be as severe as that of Tom Jones’, and when you enter the workplace and your boss tells you that you aren’t worth a hill of beans, you’ll have the temerity to bite back on that and become a better employee in the aftermath. When your spouse tells you you’re worthless, or your fellow employees single you out for their torture, you can defeat them with the notion that they’re not as bad as that which Tom Jones inflicted upon you in the second grade. That was humiliating and devastating, but it made you stronger emotionally. It gave you precedent.

There are always going to be some, however, that don’t survive, or become better and stronger, and social commentators always single these people out with the idea that these attempts to change the trajectory of our culture will all be worth it if we can prevent one child from ever having to learn what a frown is.  If you disagree, to any extent, you are called a social Darwinist. Others, social Darwinists if you will, claim that school, and childhood in general, is preparation for adulthood.  You gain a shell in childhood that can serve you throughout your life, you gain an exoskeleton, and a cerebral toughness in this process of socialization. Some incidentally mix these issues when they proclaim that home schooling deprives its subjects of the socialization that traditionally schooled children experience.  Yet, some of these same people will go to unusual lengths to rid schools of any activities “that could seed” bullying.

“You can’t criticize young people,” a friend of mine told me when talking about the current lot of employees working under him. “They’re so soft and tender that they fall apart at the slightest criticism. They’re shocked that anyone would dare call them out on their performance. It’s like they’ve never been criticized before. It doesn’t matter how venial the criticism is. They fall apart emotionally. We got criticized as young employees, and we mentally told our boss to go jump in the lake and became stronger in the aftermath to prove that we he said about us wasn’t true. I have to be very careful to surround any criticisms I have of these kids with compliments, so I don’t lose them. Is this a recent phenomenon, or am I glamorizing my own toughness as a young person?”

The current course we’re on, that which bans helmet to helmet hits, bans dodge ball, makes all contact sports illegal, and instructs every teacher to avoid any kind of criticism has created a society of young people that currently leads the world in self-esteem, yet ends up scoring very low in Math and Science testing.  Believing that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to is, of course, vital, but what happens to a person that progresses through life with an unmatched belief in their ability with no one telling them that they’re doing it wrong?  Why would they alter their course?  How would they learn from their mistakes, if no one tells them they’re making mistakes?  Are they going to sit around and wait for the world to come to them, and when no one recognizes their genius in the real world what do they do with that anger?

It may never happen that lawyers, legislators, and do gooders make football out and out illegal, but it will almost assuredly be a game we don’t recognize in ten years. The hits that currently occur in the game may go the way of “smoking in airplanes” but is that a good thing? Is it good to make illegal those aspects of life that plant the seeds of bullying, or are we only taking away the outlets for male aggression, and what are the unintended consequences to having all that young, male aggression bottled up and frustrated? Are we progressing toward that primal, “Hunger Game”, gladiator society that worships violence, or a listless, lost generation that sits around waiting for things to happen for them, because they don’t know how to make it happen for themselves, because they’ve never been told that they’re doing it wrong? Are we making a less violent society by taking away those events that generate aggression, or are we only causing more violence by taking away outlets?

A UFC fighter once said, “Some people look at what I do as violent, but I look at it in a different way.  You can call this twisted logic if you want, but I think that I’m teaching my opponent that getting hit is not as bad as he might have thought.  He may lose a few teeth when I hit him, and he may even get knocked out, but something happens to a person when they survive that hit. They get rejuvenated by surviving that which they feared most.  It gives them a new lease on life.”

It is a twisted sort of logic, as the UFC fighter suggested, to say that getting hit, bullied, and criticized can provide a person benefits, but it can’t be denied that most will get tougher in the aftermath.  Some will sink further into the corner, but most will feel rejuvenated by the idea that if they survived that they can survive anything.  Do gooders seek to take all these negative reinforcements away to protect children from experiencing  the same pain and disappointments they experienced in life.

Do gooders don’t get their name by purposely setting out to damage children however.  When they do what they do to end bullying in all schools, it’s an admirable thing that will elicit rounds of applause for nobody is pro-bullying, but it’s what they end up doing to achieve this goal that ends up garnering them a reputation for doing “good things” with no eye to the future or the unintended consequences of their actions.

For a couple generations now movie makers have been predicting a societal trajectory to gladiator games, based upon our current lust for violence, but if we successfully 180 that trajectory will the subjects of all of these anti-bullying measures eventually land in a utopian land of peace and harmony, or will they live in a state of perpetual fear of getting hit, criticized, or bullied where they don’t gain the unfortunate supplements of knowledge that those acts of negative reinforcement can teach us?

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