What’s Wrong With the NFL

Reading about Mike Tomlin’s headset conspiracies and Ben Roethlisberger’s “unwritten rules” has highlighted what’s really sucking the life out of the NFL for me these last few years — growing anti-intellectualism.

I know that sounds like a pretty obvious potential problem with a league known for massive, systemic brain injuries, but bear with me here. Because what’s really bothering me isn’t people being stupid. It’s how angry the league and many of the people in it get when someone is smart.

I grew up playing a lot of backyard football, and one of the real joys of actually playing — presuming you aren’t a very good athlete, like most people — came from what are literally called trick plays. Trick plays are great, and football as a sport is a wonderful canvas for drawing them up, as there are eleven guys on offense who all matter at all times. You can do tons and tons of crazy things to open up a game that, at it’s most basic and unoriginal, is basically a bunch of guys smashing into each other for a few seconds. But of course, the secret to making a good trick play isn’t doing the craziest thing possible; it’s doing something just crazy enough to confuse the other team, while still being something you can execute properly. And you know who’s really good at coming up with things like that?

Bill Belichick. And everyone in the NFL hates him for it. I’m not talking about deflating footballs or messing with headsets, two “scandals” that (a) no one has any decent proof had anything to do with him, and (b) have nothing to do with the actual game of football. I’m talking about the on-the-field shenanigans that drive football robots like John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin insane, because it requires them to think about things other than DISCPLINE and SERIOUS LOOKING BASEBALL CAPS. Listen to Ben Roesthlesberger the other day :

“In my years of playing, a defensive guy can’t bark stuff or move in the middle of a cadence. I was arguing the fact that he shifted in the middle of a cadence and I thought that there was a rule against it. Maybe there’s not – maybe it’s a written rule – I don’t really know. So, that’s what I was upset about. They do that. We saw it on film that the Patriots do that. They shift and slide and do stuff on the goal line knowing that it’s an itchy trigger-finger type of down.”

Ben, what are you even arguing here? You’re admitting that (a) you don’t even think it’s actually illegal, and (b) you’ve seen them do it on film. What do you think would make this fair — do they need to give you a hand signal they’re about to try to trick you? And the defensive guy can’t do this, but when you go up there on 4th and 2 and yell “hut hut HUTTTTT” in an attempt to draw an offsides penalty, that’s somehow football in good faith?

This reminds me of Harbaugh freaking out last year when he got bamboozled by some trick formations Belichick came up with. His argument was similar — okay, maybe it’s not illegal, but it was strange and weird to me, and it felt illegal, so people shouldn’t get to do it. You’re the coach. You don’t have to run or jump or tackle anybody — you just have to know the rules (the real rules, not the ones in your football coach’s heart), and prepare your guys for whatever they’re going to mean on gameday.

Even just a few years ago, the common refrain to guys getting caught with their pants down in a game like this was more along the lines of “haha, you’re a terrible coach, Jack Del Rio”. But today, the collective reaction seems to be a collective hissy fit of self-righetousness because the nerds outsmarted the jocks. Even worse, all of this is getting combined into a collective “cheating” argument, as if turning off the other team’s headset, or a coach tripping someone as they run down the field is the same thing as inventing a weird formation nobody has ever used before that’s “technically legal” (or as I call it, “legal”). But in modern NFL culture, it’s all lumped together as counter-cultural hippie voodoo that needs to be stopped by the incompetent, top-down authority of the worst commissioner in sports. Quick, someone call Ted Wells.

Football, as a game, is like a giant, real-time chess match, only with a lot more variables and potential insanity. It should be something that brilliant tacticians like Belichick are constantly pushing, and turned into a beautiful mix of raw athleticism and situational mind games. But today’s NFL culture doesn’t give it’s own sport enough credit — they want a live-action Tecmo Bowl, where if Tomlin or Harbaugh guesses the right one, they’ll never be surprised by the outcome.

Unfortunately, I don’t see a new enlightenment coming during the reign of Roger Goodell, whose incompetent leadership, circular logic, and reflexive superiority complex are antithetical to anything other than grandstanding and self-importance. Maybe we can have a book-burning at halftime of the Super Bowl — that’ll show those nerds.