NFL (n.) 1. Not For Long; 2. No-Fun League; 3. Numnutz Forever Loosed; 4. Nutbird Flag Land; 5. Notches For Lackeys; 6. (K)Nocked For Loops; 7. (Archaic) National Football League.
If you take betting and civic pride out of the equation, what do we watch pro football for? We watch to see Great Players make Great Plays in the heat of battle, unforgettably, out on the frontier.
Pro football is a most American game, the John Wayne game, the John Henry game. The Great-Plays-Made-By-Great-Players aren't canned or staged. It's not some Hollywood movie or TV series dreamed up by a guy whacked out on 'shrooms. It's real. It's alive.
That's what is used to be, anyway.
Now it's just another video game. Might as well get down on the floor with the sluggard kids, get into some PlayStation 2, as watch NFL football anymore. The plays are now made by 40-somethings sitting up in a box, above and beyond the action, or soft guys in the white caps and striped shirts down on the field. They are the money players now.
It's as if the barkeep or the traveling snake-oil salesman in the Eastwood movie backshot the bad guys, instead of them drawing down on Clint and getting what we know they deserved. Ain't the same thing at all.
It's like a beancounter pushing the noseplate of his glasses back against his face with an index finger and saying, "Uh, Mr. Henry? Mr. John Q. Henry? We regret to inform you that the 133rd railroad spike you drove in your contest against the Machine was driven in at greater than an 8-degree angle; therefore, your tally doesn't count.
"You lose. Machine wins. Ballgame."
According to what's left of the NFL, ballads sung to John Henry the Steel-Drivin' Man would be overturned "upon further review."
According to the NFL, the barkeep backshot John Wayne.
And lived to tell about it.
The camera does too blink. Man has come face-to-face with the Machine, and Man has prevailed --even if it doesn't say so on the scoreboard and therefore in the history books -- at least in this sense: The skill level of the players has evolved beyond the efficacy of instant reply, or, as Road Dog said in this space a few weeks ago, slow-mo ain't slow enough no mo.
|This isn't the most thrilling scene from an NFL game ... but it has become the most important.|
Here are the latest examples of a flawed Empire:
Up in the snow in Foxboro, one Chaz Woodson sacks Tom Brady with 1:48 left, a Great Player making a Great Play against another player who had played Great, forcing a fumble, recovered by the Raiders, preserving Oakland's 13-10 victory over the New England Patriots, and setting up a showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers this coming weekend for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
That would be in the world of Man.
But in the world of the Machine, Brady was in the act of throwing a forward pass, so it's a do-over. And thus the discombobulated Raiders were halted in their celebrations. They had earned the win; our eyes told us that. That had physically beaten the Pats. But now, with the Machine's intervention, they lost, 16-13, setting up the Pittsburgh Steelers' coming walkover to the Super Bowl.
Instead of talking about Woodson's play, or how on fire Brady had been, or how plucky the Pats were even though the Raiders beat them, or how the Raiders and Steelers matched up, or if either had a prayer vs. the Rams, we ended up talking Rule Book, and a Machine.
Nobody's paying to see a Rule Book. If I wanted to go to law school, I would have been born blind.
|Your eyes might have seen Charles Woodson force this fumble by Tom Brady, but replay says your eyes are lying.|
But I wasn't. Brady pump-faked the ball at a receiver. He'd been doing it all day. QBs do it all the time, they try to deceive defenders, try to make them bite on their pump-fakes, or jump into the air at their pump-fakes; they pump-fake the ball when they are running down the field, even, and fumble it all the time after they do that. So I personally don't need a machine to know a pump-fake when I see one.
You'd think a ref would recognize one, too, after all this time. And this one ref did. He rightly ruled fumble. But then they broke out the Machine and the Rule Book. As for rule number WHATDA-(01.a)-fraud-s.c.r.e.w.e.d.o.v.e.r, who cares? The ref knew on instinct and vision when he made the call. His eyes were better than a Machine.
If it looks like a pump-fake, smells like pump-fake, acts like a pump-fake, and walks off the field like a pump-fake ... it's a pump-flippin'-fake, as the Duke would have said.
And it doesn't stop there.
In St. Louis, Aeneas Williams, a fabulous cornerback who had labored for most of his career in obscurity in Arizona, had the NFL playoff game of anyone's life with the Rams against the Packers. He was looking like a cross between Night Train Lane and Spiderman. He had two pick-and-goes for TDs in a playoff game. Off Brett Favre.
But you know what? He also had a fumble return for a TD.
Only the Machine took that one, and his immortality, away.
||That's why we watch the game, to see Great Players making Great Plays, not to sit and wait through a bloc of beer commercials while some high school gym teacher gazes through the Looking Glass, then says, "It didn't happen."
See, Packers receiver Antonio Freeman was stripped of the ball by Williams, who recovered the caused fumble in mid-air, then rolled away from Freeman, got up and sprinted to the end zone for yet another TD. That's Jerry Rice country, three TDs in one playoff game, and it started a man to thinking about who the real MVP of the Rams is this year. But after a "challenge," and "upon further review," -- the three most blood-curdling words in our culture, after "60 Minutes calling" and "any last words?" -- it was decided, ruled that Aeneas Williams was "down by contact."
Now the replay didn't show any such thing. Just as in the case with Chaz Woodson's Great Play That Wasn't, you couldn't tell what the replay showed. Because the move was too quick and too good for the camera to see. The eye could see it, because most people are better-equipped than machines, but the camera didn't catch it.
Once again, the original call, the visual + instinct call from the official on the field, was the correct one. But that correct call was overturned; Man was subbed for by Machine. It is anarchy now.
Even in the TV booth, after watching slow-mo replay after replay, John Madden and Pat Summerall could not agree if Aeneas was down by contact or not. Why?
I think it came down to what they wanted to see. Summerall is an old-school guy who, consciously or not, prefers the old-school teams and remembers when his much-beloved old-school New York Giants honorably battled the old-school Green Bay Packers in his playing days. Methinks that, all things being equal, Summerall would subconsciously prefer to see the Packers do well over the Rams. Thus, he saw Aeneas Williams as "down by contact." Where did Pat see that? Mostly in his mind, through the filter of his own wants and desires.
Meanwhile, Madden had been preaching the gospel of The Dominant Team, the Dynasty, and saying the Rams were it, the Rams were the best NFL team. So, naturally, he saw Aeneas Williams as not being down by contact. If you were to ask either man, they'd vehemently deny what I'm telling you, which only makes it all that much closer to the truth. They'd tell you that's what they saw. Only why did they see it that way?
Fans can deny-deny-deny, until the blood drains from their faces, say how they can make dispassionate calls. Well, I'm sorry, NFL football is not a dispassionate game. You cannot take the passion out of if, unless it's your eyeballs' immediate reaction to the play. Once you start thinking about it, you're going the way you've bet.
|Aeneas Williams took this interception away from Antonio Freeman, but the refs took a fumble-return TD away from Williams.|
Once you think on it, you'll "see" "your" team being in the "right." As if your name were Georgia Frontiere or Al Davis or something.
Also in the Rams-Packers game, a kickoff return for a Green Bay TD by Allen Rossum was called back because of a rather obviously B.S. holding call. You had to be looking for it, to make that call, and you had to be looking for it in St. Louis. Now if an official has the guts to make that call in Green Bay, then it probably happened.
Seems only fair to put the officials, the barkeeps, the traveling part-time snake-oil salesman and the beancounters in the upstairs boxes up for review as well, eh?
I know a Great Play when I see one. What, they are going to tell me, "Shazam. You didn't really see that. It never happened"? Well then, what am I watching the game for? I could read somebody's interpretation of the game in the next day's newspapers, or hear it on NFL 2Night. I know what I saw. So do you, probably.
So why not have a replay on that Green Bay kickoff return, and if it doesn't look like holding, particularly, then overturn that B.S. call as well, and "award" Rossum and the Packers what they rightfully earned on the field and before our eyes! That's why we watch the game, to see Great Players making Great Plays, not to sit and wait through a bloc of beer commercials while some high school gym teacher gazes through the Looking Glass, then says, "It didn't happen."
We can keep riffing on this, unfortunately. Favre had a play in St. Louis where two Rams had a death grip on him and were spinning him toward the turf, but his knee hadn't touched down. He made a fine athletic play while being twirled, heaved the seed to Ahman Green, who took off with our breath. What a play by Favre! Tweet! Get back here, Ahman. What do you mean by running in the open field with that seed Favre has gotten to you so spectacularly?
||Nobody's paying to see a Rule Book. If I wanted to go to law school, I would have been born blind.
Favre was "in the grasp" according to the Rule Book, so bring it on back. Even the Ram fans were made less happy. They were happy, in a selfish, "this-is-good-for-us" sense, but you can be made happy that way by corporate mergers and acquisitions. We don't watch pro football to be made happy by beancounters, do we? If we do, we've fallen a long and sad way, a fur piece, from the Johns, Wayne and Henry.
Now, to the Green Bay fans, that was a B.S. call interrupting the flow of the game -- we won't even talk about how "challenges" (not to Great Players making Great Plays, but to refs' calls) stop all the action; we're left watching some stiff looking into a sideline kaleidoscope, then emerging to pronounce "upon further review."
Why was it in the grasp? Well, the NFL Rule Book People, who get more airtime and have become more critical than Great Players making Great Plays, say it's to "protect the quarterback." To me, Favre doesn't play like he needs protection. If he throws six picks, he throws six picks, and he must live with that. But if he makes a Great Play to escape two defenders and gets the ball to Ahman Green, that shouldn't be taken away from him by some Nervous Nellie who never blocked anything in his life except a two-iron.
That's not what we pay to see.
They're killing the game.
Think we overstate?
Like that old white-haired man told Dog, there's lies, damn lies, and statistics. And in the NFL, the Not For Long, there's the high art of the skill players, the middle-brow art of the lineman opening and filling holes, protecting and rushing passers, and there's the low art of refereeing. At the bottom of it all, there is scholarship.
So don't be bringing us your Rule Book up in here; and don't be bringing us your cameras and overturned Great Plays up in here.
The NFL must admit instant replay has been rendered almost obsolete by the skill level of the Great NFL players. As instituted, instant replay doesn't help with Charles Woodson's Great Play or the Aeneas Williams' Great Play. You're supposed to be left slapping your forehead, saying, "I can't believe what I just saw!" What's supposed to be unforgettable are the Great Plays and Great Players, not a ruling. Rulings are for lawsuits, and for Court TV.
Who are you gonna trust -- a camera, or your lying eyes?
As the Chaz Woodson Play and Aeneas Williams Play underscore, the Great Players are better than cameras, and a far sight more entertaining than a Rule Book. Both the camera and the Rule Book have proven their limitations. So it's John Henry the Steel-Drivin' Man against the Steam-Driven Machine-Mounted Camera and its Instruction Book. Unless John Henry wins, I ain't that interested.
"Upon further review" -- when's Tiger's next tee time?
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."
|Brett Favre doesn't need any protection from the refs. He can get rid of the ball just fine on his own.||