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.

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.    

NFL Pregame Shows are Unwatchable

It’s possible, as stated in the previous entry on this general topic, that the actual NFL game may never reach un-watchable status, but the various NFL pregame shows have already reached that point. They’re a joke, a constant joke after joke, that no one, other than the giggling hosts, find humorous. Overnight ratings for the three primary pregame shows were down an average of 11% in week one of the NFL (2014), and this trend will continue as they continue to move away from the strict commentary and specific analysis of the game to the jibber jabber that I assume is designed to  entertain.

The Giggling

The Giggling

Core, NFL fans of a certain age remember a day when Brent Musburger’s NFL Today show on CBS, ruled the roost in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. We deemed this broadcast the gold standard by which all competitors, past and present, would be judged. It was a tight, seamless, and informative production that was deemed by most core, NFL fans to be indispensable Sunday viewing. We all missed a few of their broadcasts of course, but the fact that we remember those instances should cement the value this show once had on our love of the game. The NFL Today show did not just add value to the game, for many of us it was the game. Some of the actual NFL games were boring compared to the production that the NFL Today staff, Irv Cross, the Miss America contestants, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder put together, and there was a segment of the American youth that couldn’t get enough of it. As covered in the previous entry on this topic, it is obvious that NFL fan is no longer the primary demographic for the NFL pregame shows.

As the decades passed, some NFL pregame broadcasts decided to capitalize on the fact that we couldn’t get enough of football talk, by giving us more. Another hour of nothing but football –and in one cable channel’s case three more hours*– was the premise of the promise of more. Two hours of football talk before the fellas could even take the field? What red-blooded American, born and raised on football, would be against that? More is more, and more is always better, right? Plus, when the alternative programming, on Sunday, consists of political talk shows, bowling, fishing shows, and mass for the shut-ins, we should be watching right? The NFL pregame shows have led most of us to spend more time with our family.{1}

The eventual, and perhaps inevitable, conclusion that more is not always more, or better, was soon realized as these productions began adding more to make their show more for the specific intention of attracting more, beyond the core. The core, NFL fan is now showered with the dreaded human interest stories, stories that were once deemed the exclusive right of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres. We are now inundated with stories that inform us that players are people too, and they have all the hopes, fears, and dreams that we do. We are informed that some of them laugh a lot, and some of them cry. Some of them have sick children, and some of them engage in charitable activities that help out their local communities, and some of them have wives that can teach us twenty-three ways to reuse a banana peel for those NFL families that need to learn how to budget on an annual 1.9 million dollar salary.

Once the dreaded human interest stories conclude, the NFL fan returns from the World Fishing Network to hear some football talk, and we hear playful, radio-lite banter that occurs between the bosom buddy hosts. We learn that these ex-jocks that aren’t afraid to provide us with some self-deprecating, zany anecdotes that will lead to further antics and hi-jinx. Some productions then provide segments that force their hosts to have Abbot and Costello-like adversarial relationships with recurring guests and more hi-jinx, with incessant giggling to follow. And if that isn’t enough, we get to see hot chicks tell us about the weather reports for each stadium, and the sideline reports that inevitably lead to hi-jinx, antics, and banter.

When all these non-football, NFL-themed human interest segments finally conclude, and the NFL fan does receive some actual analysis of the game, they hear these ex-jocks deliver the least controversial, safest opinions they can find. Long gone are the Jimmy “The Greek” no holds barred opinions on a player’s actual ability to perform on a NFL level, and they are replaced by non-critical, safe, and positive opinions by ex-jocks not wanting to hurt a current NFL players’ feelings.

These ex-jocks, and one professional broadcaster, are then required to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on those teams with a higher fan base. If the Dallas Cowboys fail to make the playoffs this year, it will be the fifth straight year they’ve failed to do so; if the Jets fail to make the playoffs this year, it will be the fourth straight year they’ve failed to do so; but if the Falcons do make the playoffs this year, it will be the fourth time in five years that they’ve made the playoffs. Yet, the ongoing focus of these shows concerns what the Cowboys and the Jets have to do to be competitive again. Dallas is America’s team, and the Jets have the broader market, but they have both sucked for some time now. They suck so bad that talk of them reveals the attempts these NFL pregame shows are making for what they are … unwatchable.

Howard Cosell often spoke of the degradation of his craft with the admission of ex-jocks in the broadcasting booth. That warning surprised me at the time, because I thought ex-jocks could deliver a unique perspective on the game. As the years passed, and I watched these ex-jocks deliver passionate, and well-rehearsed, analyses on the game, I realized that Cosell probably feared what we would all soon realize: just about anyone can do this.

The central character of these NFL pregame shows is often the professional broadcaster on staff, and he or she, often tosses the analysis portion of the segment to the ex-jock who delivers a passionate testimonial that centers around the idea that a quarterback’s job is to throw the ball to receivers, and that those receivers need to catch that ball. The offense will then need to run the ball to keep the defense off balance, and the defense’s job is to stop the offense. In the end, the analyst informs us, one team needs to score more points than the other. Anyone can deliver this message, in other words, and the average fans doesn’t care that they do it well, as long as their heroes –the former titans of the gridiron– do it.

Most core, NFL fans thought that extending a pregame broadcast to two-to-three hours would be an incredible plus, and it was … at first. It was, perhaps, inevitable that these broadcasts, and all of the people that knew their demographics, would try to find a way to land more audience, and keep that audience longer, beyond a “just the facts ma’am” approach of a Bill Belichick to that which we have today. The extra hour(s) led to a need to cover the game in a different way, until it became about the giggling, and the infotainment, and the One Life to Live type segments with a little Oprah-lite commentary to follow. The core, NFL football watching audience that wanted mano y mano analysis proved not enough to fill a two-to-three-hour broadcast. It became redundant, and it led them to try and find ways to expand their show to attract more, beyond the core.

One has to have some sympathy for those that try to put these shows together in the age of the internet, and the thousands of sports talk radio shows that now populate the airwaves, based on the fact that by the time these shows are set to air, on Sunday, every game has been analyzed from every possible angle anyone can think of, but the human interest/comedy/infotainment segments these pregame shows have developed to fill the time we once couldn’t get enough of, are now un-watchable.

*CBS Sports Network’s Other Pregame Show

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The NFL is Nearing Unwatchable

“Too Many Commercials!” “A Record Number of Flags Thrown!” “Too Many Instant Replays! “The Art of Defense is Over!”

There are other headlines in the National Football League (NFL), but those headlines have the league tottering.

The NFL is still enjoyable for me, thanks to a technological invention called the DVR, but it’s tottering on the brink of unwatchable. My current routine NFL viewing habits involve me taping the game and waiting 45 minutes to an hour before watching the game. This time allotment usually allows me to skip the inane gibber-gabber in the pregame analysis, most of the commercials, and the time it takes for an official to review all of the instant replays in the game now. The latter often involves the broadcast network filling that time by replaying the play in question about 15 to 20 times. If you are still an NFL fan, and you don’t have a DVR, I have no idea how you maintain peak interest. On those occasions when I go to a friend’s house, we usually talk through those delays, until we eventually lose track of the game as it plays in the background. I have to imagine that the current NFL is grateful for the technological innovation, for if it weren’t for the DVR, I know I wouldn’t be watching anymore.    penalty_flag

Although NFL referees are the face of the problem for the current rise in penalties, they are just following the orders of The NFL’s Competition Committee (NFLCC). The NFLCC was set up to make the game more fair, to protect the players, and to free up offenses to score points. The NFLCC might be the most powerful body of people, controlling what the audience sees on the field. The NFLCC is comprised of representatives from eight different teams, and they are team owners, general managers, presidents, and one coach. They are a reactionary body who pass edicts down to referees. If the NFLCC believes that the offense is holding too often or the defense is getting away with pass interference too often, for example, the audience should expect to see a flurry of flags to try to curb the activity in question in the week that follows.

The NFLCC also tries to find creative and inventive ways to make the NFL a pass-friendly league to the point that quarterbacks (QB) and wide receivers (WR) are now breaking every record on the books. The creative and inventive methods that they once used to tweak the game are now becoming so blatant that it’s obvious to every core, NFL fan that the competition committee doesn’t just want a more pass-friendly league. They want what the cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, Richard Sherman once called “A more fantasy-friendly league.”

The NFLCC has proven reactionary in some cases, and when they realize that they’re perceived as too friendly to the offense, they call for officials to ramp up offensive pass interference calls, hands to the face calls on the offensive linemen, and defensive holding calls on defensive lineman. To rectify a situation, they almost always call for more penalties to be called. Their goal, I can only presume, is to have as many penalties called on the offense as the defense, but the end result is more penalties.

We should note that with few exceptions most that the penalties being called by today’s referees are not new, but that there is a greater concentration, based on certain points of emphasis, than there were in any of the previous years. Some of them, usually the game’s announcers, defend these new penalties in ways we core, NFL fans find incomprehensible. Most of the coaches in the NFL also call for more replays on more plays, and more penalties, and the only casualty is the game and the fans.

The network announcers are supposed to represent the voice of the fan, but when another yellow flag lands on the field, we usually hear the announcers say something along the lines of, “… and guess what … another flag.” This, essentially, puts the blame on the player who committed the infraction. Yet, when we view the replay of the infraction, we often see a questionable infraction that suggests that the current NFL referee now defaults to throwing a flag. We can only assume that the points an NFL official accrues throughout a week favor a call, however questionable, over a missed call. If I were an announcer, the audience of the broadcast would tire of my “let them play” cries.

The current NFL and college football announcers decry the rare penalties in-game officials miss. “You want more penalties?” I want to scream at the screen. “Who do you represent in this call for more penalties, because I know it’s not me.” I’ve reached a point, a point near no return, where I no longer care if an official misses a call against my favorite team, if the alternative means another yellow flag. I no longer take any joy from a penalty against the opposition that awards my favorite team a first down. These are relatively new concepts for me, but I’m sick of it. I’m sick of all of the penalties, and I just want the NFLCC to loosen these restrictions up and let the players on the field play some football.

The calls for instant replay are also becoming absolutely ridiculous. I fast-forwarded through a call for an instant reply, the cut to a commercial, and the follow up decision, and I calculated an eight minute span. That time-span occurred on two different occasions in the same game. The other ten to twenty calls for a reply weren’t that long, but I don’t know how other viewers can maintain peak interest in a game that is broken up with such lengthy breaks?

Certain Points of Emphasis

While it may be true that these are not new penalties, no one can argue that these new points of emphasis on some rules have led to more penalties being called, more confusion regarding the consistency of those calls, and more delays in the game. The resultant complaint, as evidenced by Richard Sherman’s, is that the league has turned its officials against the once beloved art of defense.

Most defenses do not have a Richard Sherman, or an Aquib Talib, that can play hands-off and still cover a top receiver, so most defenses have little-to-no hope of stopping the league’s high powered offenses. To rectify this perception, the competition committee put in other points of emphasis to ostensibly level the playing field. Rather than narrow the definition of illegal contact, beyond five yards, they instituted a point of emphasis on offensive pass interference, and pick plays, which has led to led to more penalties being called, more confusion on the inconsistency of those calls, and more delays in the game.

This has all led to the perception that a penalty is called on just about every series of downs, which statistically it is not, but perception beats reality in most cases. It has also led to what seems like a penalty on just about every passing play, which again is not statistically true, but perception beats reality. It has led the game’s greatest fans from the dramatic anticipation of: “Is he, or isn’t he, going to catch that pass?” to “Is he, or isn’t he, going to throw a flag?”

“All your life you grow up saying I’m only going to call a foul if it creates an advantage,” said former official, and former Senior Director of officials, Mike Pereira. “You can’t look at it that way anymore. Any contact, it’s a foul.”

The old saying that the best referees in the game are the ones that you don’t remember when the game is over, is now out the window. Referees now affect drives with their new “When in doubt, throw the flag” modus operandi, and the way the game is played, and ultimately the outcomes of some games. Anyone who doubts this change, need only look to the broadcasting booth where just about every major broadcasting now has a go-to-guy, former referee to help analyze and explain the calls that are being made on the field.

“The officials may take the heat (for this),” Mike Pereira said in an interview with UT San Diego, “But the heat should go to the (NFL’s) Competition Committee. Why do they keep doing this? There already was a league record for most point scored.

“The players will have to adjust, not the officials.”{1}

One of the many enjoyable aspects of watching sports is the historical comparison between athletes of another era. Is Drew Brees as good, or better, than Joe Montana, is Ben Roethlisberger as good as John Elway, is Peyton Manning as good, or better, than Dan Marino or Johnny Unitas? NFL game announcers now speak of current QBs and WRs breaking those old records held by Hall of Fame players. No one cares anymore, in much the same way no one cared about the Major League Baseball (MLB) records that were broken at the turn of the millennium. Most of those MLB records —the home run records in particular— mean nothing now, and the NFL’s passing yardage, touchdowns, and receptions now carry the same asterisks in the minds of the core NFL fans of the future. The game is different now, old NFL fans now tell new ones that claim that current players are just better now. You just cannot compare them line by line anymore.

The NFL does not have the rich, century old history of the MLB, and the NFL is not as reliant on comparisons via records, but even its relatively newer, and less pertinent, traditions are being eviscerated through the points of emphasis that now foster a pass-friendly, fantasy-friendly game that breaks records on an almost weekly basis. We all saw what happened to the MLB, when they began desperately tinkering with their game (post-strike) to attract a broader audience, but the powers that be in the NFL seem oblivious to the aftermath that resulted from all that tinkering.

The idea that the NFL might follow the MLB down the path to total unwatchability seems improbable, as the game has never been more popular. As the NFL institutes on field and off field bells and whistles to broaden the base, the indispensable base is starting to think the NFL views them as dispensable. We’ve burned through a number of DVRs fast forwarding through the pregame commentaries that focus on non-game related activities, and the commercials and replays that test the fan’s endurance. Some of us even go so far as to turn the volume down during a game, so we don’t have to hear commentary from the broadcaster’s chosen analyst defend referees, the NFLCC, and rules in general. We try very hard to ignore the new aspects of the game we don’t care for in favor of those we do, but the NFL is making this more difficult with every passing year. Even while we grumble, however, we have some sympathy for those placed in the impossible place of trying to please Vegas gamblers, fantasy football players, and all of the people all of the time, but when they stoop to please the others too often the core NFL might reach that point of estrangement that they consider the game unwatchable.

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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