Tagged: nfl

The NFL Draft is tonight, and wow I couldn’t care less

The NFL Draft is tonight. (Well, technically speaking, it only begins tonight, because the NFL is a relentless profit-seeking monster that would charge fans per down if it were somehow deemed possible and able to be endlessly promoted on the NFL Network.) Normally, I would care more, I would be vacuuming up draft predictions, because it’s the NFL Draft and it’s always fun to see grown men and women in the league and in the media devote endless hours to the study and dissection of a group of young men and inevitably wind up getting so much of it wrong. Also, it’s just an entertaining thing to watch, because it is part of the greater NFL experience.

The NFL has long ceased to be about teams playing between 16 and 20 games per season. It has become a year-round circus, something perpetually interesting because one particular aspect of it (professional football) is so interesting. Not this year, though, at least not for me. This year, I find myself lacking real interest. Sure, I’m curious how the very weak quarterback class will be divvied up among the haves and have-nots in the league. The Carolina Panthers are considering taking Cam Newton first overall, which is both a terrible idea and an inevitable one. I should care. I should care about if the Dolphins draft Ryan Mallett and his “troubled” “character,” and which team snags game-changing future ROY Patrick Peterson, and which quarterback-needing teams drafts A.J. Green and Julio Jones, the best one-two receiver class in years, so that they can make miracles out of overthrown passes.

But I don’t care. Maybe it’s because so much else is going on in the world? No, that’s not it. But for the most tumultuous periods in the lives of sports fans, sports always exist as a release valve, an outlet, a perpetual source of amusement, entertainment and diversion from the things that otherwise demand our attention.

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The NFL releases 2011 schedule of games, for some reason

Good news, everyone! The 2011 NFL season that probably won’t be played has an official schedule. I can’t wait until the Dolphins don’t host the Patriots for the first Monday night game, or until we find out what Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are really doing instead of playing in their week 10 Saints/Falcons matchup. Check back in early September if the lockout is over; if not, you can go back to focusing all of your energy on college football.

Super Bowl XLV Preview

Oh hey, it’s the Super Bowl. Packers and Steelers. Lots of history. Lots of made-up storylines about redemption. Lots of actual storylines about Aaron Rodgers’s ascent to stardom. Lots of talk about how this might be the last football game for a while. Lots of ads. Lots of money. Lots of food. Lots of beer. Lots of everything.

Pick? Packers, I guess. Should be a reasonably close game with a reasonably high score. (Is that vague enough for you? Cool.) We’ve had three consecutive Super Bowls that were pretty good games. I don’t care about either team, except obviously I’m obliged to root against the Packers and required to be tired of the Steelers. Here’s hoping for a fourth good game, is my only goal.

The NFL, concussions and the future

It was a busy week, so I didn’t get to Ben McGrath’s excellent article on the future of football w/r/t concussions and other traumatic brain injuries until now. He spends a lot of time giving well-deserved recognition to the work of New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz, who has produced the best and most high-profile reporting on the concussion problem.

McGrath’s story really is worth a read, but there are a few things he touches upon that particularly stuck with me. For one, there’s this obvious-yet-vital tidbit about why the Times, as opposed to ESPN, is the outlet driving the story:

Schwarz had the backing of a news organization that did not see itself as having any symbiotic ties to the game’s economic engine. (ESPN, which drives the national conversation on sports, invests more than a billion dollars a year in football broadcasting.)

ESPN is a useful resource for sports fans looking for entertainment and occasional edification; they employ some of the best sportswriters in the game and obviously have unrivaled resources. But while the television network is stunt-heavy (“The Decision,” “Who’s Now?”, et cetera), reporters covering the major sports often run into the same problem a lot of beat reporters encounter: access.

Schwarz may not have been out to get football, but he was clearly less emotionally invested in it than most of his predecessors and peers, who had helped build the sport into the de-facto national pastime with romantic coverage of heroic sacrifice. He was not a fan. “I’d been pitching this to reporters for years,” [concussion activist Chris] Nowinski told me, of the head-injury problem in general. “People in football told me, point blank, ‘I don’t want to lose my access.’ It literally took a baseball writer who did not care about losing his access, and didn’t want the access, to football.”

The “access” issue is one that crops up for reporters covering every beat imaginable. On the one hand, access gives you a chance to glean information from key figures in the stories you cover, it gives you richer and more in-depth understanding of the subject matter and it, hopefully, provides for better reporting (and, therefore, a better service to the public). But access also means that reporters have something to lose, which in turn gives sources and subjects power over the reporters. Anybody who spends any time reading stories or watching news about politics is well-versed in this; afraid to lose sources and prominence, people waste time on non-stories and non-issues, and the political discourse seemingly takes place in a different world than everybody else inhabits.

For ESPN, which quite baldly makes a bundle on the NFL and the other major sports, this is a big problem. A lot of sports fans get most of their news from ESPN. The network is, in turn, in bed with a lot of the sports it also covers; just this month, we learned the network is nearing a new multi-billion dollar deal with the NFL so it can keep airing “Monday Night Football.” It’s symbiotic. They can say all they want about the separation of business and editorial, but when you have the kind of investment ESPN has in what is the most popular sport in the country, it becomes a lot harder for reporters to truly highlight something so damaging to the league. That is why the league and people who have financial stakes in the future of football are pissed at Schwarz. As McGrath puts it, the concussion stories “threatened to affect the so-called pipeline, the future sons of football, whose non-sports-fan mothers were reading his accounts.”

That’s the key issue with coverage of (and attempts to deal with) concussions, of course; it will always be an uphill battle to get people to properly approach something so intertwined with their livelihood. And McGrath touches on the bigger issue with football: how, exactly, can you decrease serious brain injuries without completely changing the game? One smart proposal says that you get rid of, or seriously alter, kickoffs and punts; while returns can often be exciting, they are also the plays when the most serious injuries can easily take place, as we saw when a Rutgers player was paralyzed trying to make a tackle last fall. While that could help avert some injuries, it’s still a game where 300-pound men launch into one another at the line on every play and where some of the best athletes in the world are required to physically bring down their opponents.

McGrath touches on a crucial part of this, and something you don’t see in the highlights after the game: the way fans react when an injured player is lying prone on the turf. “Those aren’t expressions of morbid curiosity. They reflect a guilty fear that, one of these days, millions of us are going to watch a man die on the turf,” he writes. This isn’t idle speculation. The players are only getting faster, stronger and smarter thanks to improvements in training, medical technology and the breakdown of film, which enables coaches and players to zero in on weaknesses in their opponents and exploit them. It’s impossible to conclude anything else: a player is going to get hit the wrong way, at the wrong spot or the wrong angle, and millions of people will be witness to this moment. That might be the only thing that causes changes. I’m no expert, so I have no idea what changes, exactly. But it would be nice if the league and the owners, executives, coaches, personnel and players who profit from the sport’s success dealt with the issue before it gets that far.

The Tennessee Titans dump Jeff Fisher

This is pretty surprising news: The Tennessee Titans have fired Jeff Fisher, the NFL’s current longest-tenured coach. They did it the week before the Super Bowl, otherwise known as the time when seemingly every head coaching vacancy has already been filled, so Fisher’s not going to find another job any time soon. (That’s okay, because he’ll make $8 million dollars for not coaching the team in 2011.)

The move is very surprising because Fisher has a year left on his contract, and the assumption was that Titans owner Bud Adams would let him play it out. Adams recently had to take a side in the public rift between Fisher and quarterback Vince Young, and he seemingly chose Fisher: the Titans cut Young earlier this season. Don Banks reports that there may have been an issue with Fisher losing two defensive assistants, and having only one year on his contract makes it tough to bring in coordinators. The bigger issue is, obviously, that Fisher and the owner had simply hit a wall in their relationship together.

Fisher was promoted late in the 1994 season as interim coach and stayed on to notch a career record of 147-126 (including playoffs). He took the Titans to the Super Bowl after the 1999 season, where they famously came up a yard short in a loss to St. Louis. They made six playoff appearances under Fisher, but after the postseason in 2000 they won just two playoff games; the last victory came in the wild card round after the 2003 season. His teams won 13 games three times since 1999 (most recently in 2008), but in 10 of his seasons they finished at .500 or below. Believe it or not, the guy is 20th on the all-time coaching wins list.

Jay Cutler tore his MCL, and now everybody will be apologetic and wonder how he’s feeling, right?

YOU KNOW HE’S DIABETIC TOO, RIGHT? After Jay Cutler sat midway through the NFC title game, there was widespread questioning of his toughness, his grit and his hustle. The Twitters literally erupted in Cutler bashing, a surprising amount of it coming from current and former players who, ostensibly, should know that there are things on the field that are not immediately evident to viewers at home. Some people offered the opinion that, if Cutler should turn out to be injured, well, that would show his critics. It turns out the guy tore his medial collateral ligament, which is an incredibly painful injury making it seemingly impossible to plant your leg and throw a football (which is what Cutler is paid to do). But who cares? People still dislike him, Cutler should stop wearing his hat backwards, the end.

I understand why a lot of people dislike Cutler. Personally, I think he’s a walking heart attack of a quarterback, because you never know when his brain will stop functioning and he’ll launch the ball towards five defenders at a key moment. But it sure seems like a lot of the negative coverage comes from people bitter that he won’t give them the time of day. He’s not paid to gladhand with the media. He’s not paid to be likable. He’s paid to throw the ball.

Fans tolerate athletes who dodge rape allegations, who serve jail time for killing dogs, who are involved in some way with fatal stabbings, who drink and drive, who have different kids from multiple mothers (hi, Tom Brady!), who are disloyal teammates (Peyton Manning), who commit any number of implied or actual crimes. The bitterness towards Cutler because he seems like an unlikable guy is fine if you don’t want to cheer for him or buy his jersey. But now, despite the “tough guy NFL” image seemingly on the decline while the league frets about dirty hits and concussions, we’re reminded that a lot of fans and athletes alike forget that these are people who feel pain and sometimes, in all seriousness, cannot physically perform their duties. We’re told that they need to “tough it out” and “play through it,” regardless of the actual medical impact.

If Aaron Rodgers takes a hit to the head in the Super Bowl and sits, it will be the medically sound decision. Will it be forgiven because people like him? Maybe. Would it be forgiven if the similarly-concussed Cutler sat out? I think the past two days have answered that question.

Bill Parcells is a modest, well-mannered man

Bill Parcells! The erstwhile Tuna. You know the guy, he has worked for every single NFL franchise in existence, just searching for more kickers to belittle and psychologically assault. Anyway, he was most recently running the football operations of the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins are bitter rivals of the New York Jets, one of the many spots where Parcells used to work.

The Dolphins, a team Parcells helped mold, are at home for the second straight postseason; the Jets, a team he hasn’t worked for in a decade, are in their second straight AFC title game. You might think Parcells would have nothing to say this week. You’d be wrong! He wants to make sure you know he told the Jets to hire Rex Ryan, and he totally would have hired Ryan if not for his relationship with Tony Sparano. And that whole thing where he was working for the Dolphins but giving the Jets crucial hiring advice? That’s just the way football is played. But please, please pay attention to Bill Parcells. If the Steelers make the Super Bowl, expect Parcells to let everybody know he seriously considered drafting Ben Roethlisberger, and also he literally birthed Mike Tomlin and Troy Polamalu.

NFL Playoff Predictions: Divisional Round

So my NFL playoff predictions last weekend weren’t THAT bad. With four games to pick, I had 50 percent accuracy, which puts me right up there with the ESPN prognosticators in terms of being just as accurate as a coin flip.

Incorrect choices: I picked the Chiefs over the Ravens as my upset (Baltimore demolished Kansas City) and I had New Orleans crushing Seattle (everybody else thought that as well, which doesn’t mean anything but is nice to say). Correct choices: I had the Jets upsetting Indy at home and Green Bay heading into Philly and pulling out the win.

This weekend’s games give me four more chances to make erroneous picks. And this weekend’s games actually all have the potential to be terrific, which makes this basically the best weekend in the NFL: all of the best teams should be competing (er, and Seattle), and we have four games spread over two days. Next weekend’s conference title games are also usually entertaining, but there’s only two games on one day, so it’s less of a football smorgasbord. Onto my picks:

SATURDAY

Steelers over Ravens
Ah, the classic “guys who have been accused of and/or implicated in criminal activity but mostly never convicted” game. Ben Roethlisberger is on his biggest stage since being accused of rape, while Ray Lewis’s alleged misdeeds won’t even get mentioned by the announcers. Fun! Also, Donte’ Stallworth is probable for the game. Just thought that was worth noting, as part of the theme.

Packers over Falcons
It’s not just that Atlanta is suspect (though they are, because when you play that conservatively all the time, and you’re playing even a relatively explosive offense, you can wind up down very quickly). It’s the way Green Bay has looked the last few weeks. They finally found a running game in James Starks, who was explosive against Philly; Atlanta is slightly better against the run, but they are much worse than the Eagles against the pass (Philly was tied for No. 14 against the pass, compared to No. 22 for the Falcons). In other words, Green Bay has too much explosive firepower not to find a way into the endzone. Unless Atlanta stops playing carefully — and that seems unlikely at this point — I just don’t see them as a big power. They can win if they rigidly control the clock, but if it becomes a shootout Atlanta is in trouble.

SUNDAY

Bears over Seahawks
Okay, this is obviously the game I’m obliged to care the most about. The Bears have been an absurdly soft 11-5 team this year, and they lost to Seattle 23-20 at Soldier Field. The Seahawks are also on a roll right now, having upset and embarrassed New Orleans last weekend. I still have faith the Bears can pull this off. It’s their first trip to the postseason since the Super Bowl four years ago. They beat Seattle en route to that game, and while the Seahawks have different coaches and skill players, I’m going to pretend that means something. Chicago can also have a stifling defense (New Orleans did not). The big question mark here is Jay Cutler. He is making his first postseason start (college or pro, which is absurd when you consider his supposedly almost-elite status). Will he wilt under pressure? Will he turn into the old Cutler and throw risky passes at the Seahawk defenders, hoping his preposterously strong arm helps him knock them out or something? Will Mike Martz call some kind of insane play at a key moment? Or will they play smart and limit Cutler to relatively short passes, let Matt Forte move the chains (until they get to the red zone, which I still don’t like) and not go for anything risky? We’ll see. I think Chicago pulls it off and hosts Green Bay for a pretty entertaining NFC title game.

Patriots over Jets
This one was overexposed before it was even official, so I will just say this: New England is going to embarrass New York. This won’t be a blowout like the 45-3 game a few weeks ago, but New England has been so dominant over the last two months, and now they’ve had a week off and time to rest and prepare for the Jets? This is going to be brutal. I thought the Jets have looked flawed since the season started, and I’ve said this a few times. Their fluky win last week in Indy didn’t change anything (yeah, the Colts were a banged-up fragment of what they once were; yeah, they got VERY lucky on some late penalties; and yeah, their elite receivers rescued the game when Mark Sanchez did his best to overthrow every pass. From that, they’re suddenly on par with the Patriots?). Patriots in a landslide.

Cam Newton declares for the NFL Draft

Cam Newton, the Heisman-winning quarterback of the BCS Champion Auburn Tigers, is declaring for the NFL Draft. Well, duh. Why would the dude stay for another season that would, inevitably, be a letdown from their undefeated 2010 outing? Why would he stay for another round of insinuations, investigations and whispered recriminations? The guy was the player in college football this season, and he was also the embodiment of everything that is right and wrong with the sport.

(Besides the whole “Yeah, somebody, somewhere, probably did something improper to get him to Auburn” thing, there are so many factors here: the fact that he played for an undefeated team that earned a championship through a flawed BCS system; the fact that he had to sit out a season of Division I ball because of a preposterous transfer system that penalizes players but not coaches; the fact that he earned Auburn, the SEC and the NCAA quite a few bucks, but him earning any sort of money was a pearl-clutching degradation of the sport; the fact that he played for the SEC, so he was bigger and faster and better than the other guy, but all people kept talking about was his off-the-field stuff; the fact that he was, in essence, the new Tim Tebow, but due to his off-the-field stuff and, sadly, some racial factors he wasn’t feted as the be-all, end-all in the sport; the fact that he excelled in college ball but people kept coming back to the “But can he play in the NFL?” question; and the fact that his Heisman, his undefeated season and his championship are all, ultimately, viewed as temporary, at least until all of the investigations are concluded several years hence. Whew.)

So, yeah, the guy dominated the sport this year, both in terms of play and headlines, and of course he should go pro and cash in while he can. As long as the NCAA persists in the preposterous notion that college players should not be paid, and should not have a legitimate financial stake in a very successful enterprise, there’s nothing wrong with that. And now we get to play the “Where will he be drafted, and can he play in the NFL?” game! Can he translate to a pro system? Expect to hear that question asked 1,232 times over the next few months. It’ll be just like last year with Tebow, except with people swapping out “leadership and charisma” for “off-the-field issues and charisma” in their summaries of what he brings to the table.

Marshawn Lynch’s amazing touchdown run

The heavily-favored New Orleans Saints lost to the Seattle Seahawks this weekend in their wild card matchup in Seattle. The Seahawks won 41-36, but it was one of those games where it wasn’t as close as the final score. The exclamation point on the whole thing was Marshawn Lynch’s astounding 67-yard touchdown, wherein he basically careened off of every player on the field and possibly darted through the traffic on 4th Avenue before making it to the end zone. It must be seen.