I've been a steadfast fan of NFL football for the past 15 years. Most weekends I'd catch at least two or three games on TV. Professional football lays bare all of the human achievement + battle with self + physical intelligence + teamwork stuff I love thinking about in a particularly compelling way. But for a few years now, the cons have been piling up in my conscience: the response to head injuries, the league's nonprofit status, the homophobia, and turning a blind eye to the reliance on drugs (PEDs and otherwise). And the final straw: the awful terrible inhuman way the league treats violence against women.
It's overwhelming. Enough is enough. I dropped my cable subscription a few months ago and was considering getting it again to watch the NFL, but I won't be doing that. Pro football, I love you, but we can't see each other anymore. And it's definitely you, not me. Call me when you grow up.
So how did I do? I ended up watching four games this season: a random Sunday night game in week 15 or 16, the Pats/Ravens playoff, the Pats/Colts playoff, and the Super Bowl. I've been watching and rooting for the Patriots for the past, what, 14 or 15 years now. And more to the point, I've been following the Brady/Belichick storyline for almost that long and once it became clear the Pats had a great shot at winning it all, not watching the final acts was just not going to happen, NFL bullshit or not. It would be like putting down one of the best 1200-page books you've ever read with two chapters to go and just saying, yeah, I'm not going to read the end of that. And that game last night...I felt *incredible* when Butler intercepted that pass. Life is full of many greater, more fulfilling, and more genuine moments, but there's no feeling quite like the one when you realize your team has won, especially when that victory has been snatched, semi-literally, from the jaws of near-certain defeat.
But that's ultimately weak sauce. I don't feel justified about watching just because I really enjoyed it. I made a commitment to myself and didn't honor it. I believe the NFL is still a terrible organization and isn't worth supporting with my attention. For whatever it's worth, I'm going back to not watching next year, and I hope I fare better.
Update: Bill Simmons, in an epic recap of the final 12 minutes of the Super Bowl, echoes what I was getting at above.
When you've been rooting for the same people for 15 years, at some point the stakes become greater. You want that last exclamation-point title. (Just ask Spurs fans.) You want to feel like you rooted for a dynasty, or something close to it, instead of just "a team that won a couple of times." You want to say that you rooted for the best coach ever and the best quarterback ever, and you want to be constantly amazed that they showed up to save your sad-sack franchise at the exact same time.
I lay awake at night wondering how many lives were irreparably damaged by my most handy ball boy tool: smelling salts. On game days my pockets were always full of these tiny ammonia stimulants that, when sniffed, can trick a brain into a state of alertness. After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky. Then, with eyes squeezed shut in pain, he'd scream "Eric!" and I'd dash over and say, "It's O.K., I'm right here, got just what you need."
Memory loss is just one of the problems that plague Gerald Willhite, 55. Frustration, depression, headaches, body pain, swollen joints, and a disassociative identity disorder are other reminders of his seven-season (1982-88) career with the Denver Broncos, during which he said he sustained at least eight concussions.
"I think we were misled," Willhite said from Sacramento. "We knew what we signed up for, but we didn't know the magnitude of what was waiting for us later."
When Willhite read about the symptoms of some former players who were taking legal action against the NFL, he thought "Crap, I got the same issues." He decided to join the lawsuit that claimed the league had withheld information about brain injuries and concussions. He feels that the $765 million settlement, announced last summer and earmarked for the more than 4,000 players in the lawsuit, is like a "Band-Aid put on a gash."
Any other year, Steve Almond would have seen the play. But, after forty years of fandom, he's quit the N.F.L. In his new book, "Against Football," Almond is plain about what he considers the various moral hazards of the game: "I happen to believe that our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia."
This part resonated most with me:
Even a casual N.F.L. fan can recognize that this is a particularly opportune time for a Raiders fan to stop watching football. The team is terrible. I asked Almond about that. "If the Raiders were really good, I might not have written the book," he said. "How fucked up is that? It's true, I love them. I see those colors, and it's me." For Almond, his struggle to confront his own hypocrisy is exactly the point: proof of football's insidiousness, of its ominous power.
"Football somehow hits that Doritos bliss point," he told me. "It's got the intellectual allure of all these contingencies and all this strategy, but at the same time it is so powerfully connecting us to the intuitive joys of childhood, that elemental stuff: Can you make a miracle? Can you see the stuff that nobody else sees? And most of us can't, but we love to see it. And I don't blame people for wanting to see it. I love it, and I'm going to miss it."
It's overwhelming. Enough is enough. I dropped my cable subscription a few months ago and was considering getting it again to watch the NFL, but I won't be doing that. Pro football, I love you, but we can't see each other anymore. And it's definitely you, not me. Call me when you grow up.
My (admittedly unoriginal) suspicion is that the reason we keep having this discussion over the ethics of football is almost entirely a product of the sport's sheer popularity. The issue of concussions in football is debated exhaustively, despite the fact that boxing -- where the goal is to hit your opponent in the face as hard as possible -- still exists. But people care less about boxing, so they worry less about the ethics of boxing. Football is the most popular game in the United States and generates the most revenue, so we feel obligated to worry about what it means to love it. Well, here's what it means: We love something that's dangerous. And I can live with that.
I'm not here to dictate other people's morality. I'm certainly not here to call for banning of the risky activities of consenting adults. And my moral calculus is my own. Surely it is a man's right to endanger his body, and just as it is my right to decline to watch. The actions of everyone in between are not my consideration.
Same here. I don't feel any sense of judgment or righteousness about this. Just the personal loss of a hobby I *really* enjoyed. (via @campbellmiller & @Godzilla07)
The Redskins' London Fletcher is undersized and thirty-eight years old, but he's been able to play for so long because he is a defensive Peyton Manning: seeing the game so lucidly, yelling out the offensive play about to unfold, changing alignments before the snap, organizing the field in real time. Similarly, Lavonte David, who has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two years, is just two hundred and thirty-four pounds -- ten to fifteen pounds lighter than most at his position -- the Wonderlic scores out on the Internet for him are not especially high, and, like all players, he makes the occasional boneheaded play. But he possesses dedicated study habits and a football clairvoyance that, come Sunday, finds him ignoring the blocking flow only at the one moment during a game when the offense runs the ball away from it.
The Hall of Fame Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds, the dimension of a modern fullback. Even so, Page was terrifying. His forty-yard-dash time wasn't anything special, either, but he says that he could run down faster opponents because he always had sense where he was in relation to the blur of bodies around him-he could "understand the situation." Page is now an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. "Being a football player requires you to take your emotional self to places that most people shouldn't go," he said. "You wouldn't want to get to know the person who was in my head on a football field. I likely see some of these people in my current job -- those who can't control that person -- and they do not very nice things."
I asked him, "You could control that person on a field?"
"Most of the time," Page said.
The safety, standing at the rear of the defense, must compensate for the mistakes of others; football intelligence matters more at this position than any other on the defense. At five-eight, a hundred and eighty-eight pounds, the Bills safety Jim Leonhard, a nine-year veteran, is among the smallest and also the slowest starting defensive backs in the game. And yet, watching him on film, he appears to teleport to the ball. Leonhard's name seems to enter any conversation about football intelligence; he knows every teammate's responsibilities in every call, and understands the game as twenty-two intersecting vectors. "He'd walk off the bus and you'd think he was the equipment manager," Ryan Fitzpatrick said. "He's still in the league because he's the quarterback of the defense."
In general, there are three types of announcer comments: good, neutral and bad. Good statements offer some type of insight into the game. This is inherently subjective, since different people know different things. Neutral statements constitute the bulk of their utterances: neither offensive nor insightful. As a result, I decided to measure the bad statements.
I divided announcers' verbal infractions into six categories that are not simply pet peeves, but likely to be annoyances for a majority of NFL viewers.
Happy to see Chris Collinsworth near the top of the heap...he's my favorite and, while a bit goofy sometimes, offers the best post-Madden analysis in the game. Siragusa and Gruden are like nails on the chalkboard, surprised they didn't rank much worse.
Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett is among a growing group of former NFL players who have been diagnosed with diseases caused by years of head trauma and other injuries.
The former Cowboys running back, now 59, said that when he took his Oct. 21 flight from Dallas to Los Angeles for testing, he repeatedly struggled to remember why he was aboard the plane and where he was going. Such episodes, he said, are commonplace when he travels.
Dorsett said he also gets lost when he drives his two youngest daughters, ages 15 and 10, to their soccer and volleyball games.
"I've got to take them to places that I've been going to for many, many, many years, and then I don't know how to get there," he said.
The 1976 Heisman Trophy winner and eighth all-time leading NFL rusher said he has trouble controlling his emotions and is prone to outbursts at his wife and daughters.
"It's painful, man, for my daughters to say they're scared of me." After a long pause, he tearfully reiterated, "It's painful."
In an interview with Fox affiliate WFLD-TV, aired Wednesday, the 53-year-old McMahon says he knows where he's going when in an airport. But when he meets people, "I'm asking two minutes later, 'Who was that?'
"When my friends call and leave me a message ... I'll read it and delete it before I respond and then I forget who called and left me a message."
McMahon says he is not worried about his mind withering away. He says he still reads a lot and is doing other things to keep his mind active. However, he said he doesn't know whether he is getting worse.
These stories are just going to keep coming. Perhaps a true tipping point will come when one of the league's past megastars is dianosed with CTE...if Brett Favre or Dan Marino or John Elway or Troy Aikman or Ray Lewis or any of the other former players that appear regularly on NFL game broadcasts announces he has CTE or dementia, maybe then the league will take real action? Or not? (via df)
Excerpts published Wednesday by ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated from the book, "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth," report that the NFL used its power and resources to discredit independent scientists and their work; that the league cited research data that minimized the dangers of concussions while emphasizing the league's own flawed research; and that league executives employed an aggressive public relations strategy designed to keep the public unaware of what league executives really knew about the effects of playing the game.
It probably doesn't come as much of a surprise that the NFL is a highly profitable business. But it might come as a shock that the league enjoys nonprofit status. From Gregg Easterbrook: How the NFL Fleeces Taxpayers.
Taxpayers fund the stadiums, antitrust law doesn't apply to broadcast deals, the league enjoys nonprofit status, and Commissioner Roger Goodell makes $30 million a year. It's time to stop the public giveaways to America's richest sports league -- and to the feudal lords who own its teams.
Lex Friedman details how to use DNS services (like AdFree Time) to route around region-specific content locks, so you can do things like watch all NFL games in HD from anywhere, change Netflix regions (for access to different content), etc.
Third-party services like AdFree Time offer up a DNS-based solution: Pay a monthly fee and use their DNS services, and the NFL's website treats you as if you're coming from Europe. You thus get to watch every NFL game streaming online in high definition, since the league offers that option to folks in Europe at no charge. Americans, usually, miss out. I could pay for DirecTV's insanely overpriced Sunday Ticket, but I think it's a ripoff when I'm only looking to watch about six to eight Eagles games that won't show here.
If you don't know anything about football and yet are interested in (or being coerced into) watching the big game this weekend, here are some players' stories that might make it more interesting for you.
Whether actively experiencing the spectacle or not, there are a few reasons to like the Super Bowl in 2013, besides the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are the first major professional sports franchise, so far, to be named after a 19th century poem. For starters, in a sports year that's already brought us doping cyclists and fake dead girlfriends, the teams in this year's contest are welcome standouts. The San Francisco 49ers were the first NFL team to join the "It Gets Better" campaign, and their opponent, the Ravens, has a team captain who is the most outspoken advocate of LGBT rights in the NFL, and whose presence has evolved the once overtly homophobic locker-room culture of his entire team.
I loved this line in reference to Colin Kapernick's replacement of Alex Smith as the 49ers' starting QB:
The deliberate, steady bus was replaced by a flaming Apache helicopter flown by a nude Vladimir Putin.
"We were saddened to learn that Junior, a loving father and teammate, suffered from CTE," the family said in a statement released to the AP. "While Junior always expected to have aches and pains from his playing days, none of us ever fathomed that he would suffer a debilitating brain disease that would cause him to leave us too soon.
"We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior. But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety, and make the game safer for future generations."
Plaintiffs are listed as Gina Seau, Junior's ex-wife; Junior's children Tyler, Sydney, Jake and Hunter, and Bette Hoffman, trustee of Seau's estate.
The lawsuit accuses the league of glorifying the violence in pro football, and creating the impression that delivering big hits "is a badge of courage which does not seriously threaten one's health."
It singles out NFL Films and some of its videos for promoting the brutality of the game.
Seau is a pretty boldfaced name...I wonder what effect this will have on public perception, etc.
CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease that could dramatically change the way pro football is played in the future (if it's played at all), can't be identified in victims until after death. That makes it difficult to prove (or disprove) the connection between pro football, concussions, and death from CTE. But researchers have discovered a possible technique that could diagnose CTE in living patients.
Last year five retired N.F.L. players who were 45 years and older and suffered from mood swings, depression and cognitive problems were given PET, or positron emission tomography, scans. The authors of the study said those scans revealed tau protein deposits in their brains, a signature of C.T.E. While not definitive, the distribution of tau in the retired players was consistent with those found in the autopsies of players who had C.T.E.
If it's actually possible, this could be huge. Many more players, current and former, can be tested and diagnosed and if CTE was found regularly and consistently, you'd think that insurance companies would flee from the NFL like rats leaving a sinking ship and football would have to adapt (to be more like soccer? flag football?) or die.
"The worst injury I've ever had on the field -- for my wife and kids, at least, and my mom and dad -- was an injury I got against the 49ers," says Matt Hasselbeck. "Patrick Willis hit me as I was diving for the goal line. He hit me, and twenty minutes later I'm in an ambulance on my way to Stanford Medical. I'd broken a rib on the left and I'd broken a rib on the right. The rib on the right was right next to my aorta, and it was really dangerous for my health. I couldn't breathe. It was like there was a weight on top of me. It's a scary thing, because it feels like you're drowning. I couldn't breathe at all, and I got up off the field because it was a two-minute situation - I didn't want the team to have to take a time-out. I tried to run off the field, and when the trainers met me they saw I was, like, purple in the face. And they immediately put me on the ground. Sometimes they'll put you on the ground to evaluate you and sometimes to give the backup quarterback a chance to get loose. They put me on the ground because I was purple."
That instinct - the instinct to run when you can't breathe in order to save your team a time-out - is not one often encountered in civilian life. Indeed, it is one encountered almost exclusively in war, in which people's lives, rather than simply their livelihoods, are at stake. Now, the NFL is replete with military symbolism, not to mention military pretensions. But the reality of injury is what makes it more than fantasy football, more than professional wrestling, more than an action movie, more than a video game played with moving parts who happen to be human. The reality of injury - and the phantasmagoric world of pain - is what makes it, legitimately, a blood sport. And it is what makes Dr. Yates, the Steelers' team doctor, define his job simply and bluntly: "My job is to protect players from themselves."
Former NFL star Jason Taylor was so injured (and yet still playing every week) that for a period of two years, the 6'6" 240-pound linebacker couldn't lift his kids into bed. So how did he play? Shots to kill the pain and then more shots to kill the pain of the first shots. And so on. Until he almost had to have his leg amputated.
The trainer rushed to Taylor's house. Taylor thought he was overreacting. The trainer told him they were immediately going to the hospital. A test kit came out. Taylor's blood pressure was so high that the doctors thought the test kit was faulty. Another test. Same crazy numbers. Doctors demanded immediate surgery. Taylor said absolutely not, that he wanted to call his wife and his agent and the famed Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion. Andrews also recommended surgery, and fast. Taylor said, fine, he'd fly out in owner Daniel Snyder's private jet in the morning. Andrews said that was fine but that he'd have to cut off Taylor's leg upon arrival. Taylor thought he was joking. Andrews wasn't. Compartment syndrome. Muscle bleeds into the cavity, causing nerve damage. Two more hours, and Taylor would have had one fewer leg. Fans later sent him supportive notes about their own compartment syndrome, many of them in wheelchairs.
"I was mad because I had to sit out three weeks," he says. "I was hot."
He had seven to nine inches of nerve damage.
"The things we do," he explains. "Players play. It is who we are. We always think we can overcome."
At the New Yorker, Reeves Wiedeman reminds us that the NFL is unlikely to change because so much of what happens with injuries is hidden from view.
As we watch a game that we know is dangerous, we soothe ourselves with the idea that these men must be aware of the risks, too; that they are being well compensated to take on those risks; and that, at least when they're on the field, in front of the cameras, they are living the dream that we all craved as kids, and they're having fun.
But what we can take from this story, and from the fact that, on the surface, this weekend's games were filled with such excitement, is the fact that so much of football's barbarism takes place beyond our vision and behind closed doors.
Troy Aikman moves around the field at Cowboys Stadium as if he owns the place, but in a previous-owner kind of way. He'll soon call a game here for Fox. People scream his name from the stands as he moves toward midfield to meet a head coach and a PR man. The sportcaster's partner, Joe Buck, sits up in the booth, preparing. The Cowboys. The Saints. Thanksgiving Day. Here's the behind-the-scenes look at how Fox's broadcast of the game happens.
If Aikman -- and Buck, too -- have any misconceptions about their comedic chops, it's because, for several months out of the year, they are surrounded by people who laugh too hard at their jokes or anything that even seems like a joke. The next day, Aikman makes the slightest quip about the size of the enormous screen that hovers above the field at Cowboys Stadium -- certainly strip-mined ground even a couple of months after the place opened. The reaction he receives would seem improbable even if Louis C.K. had delivered the line.
Pretty interesting. Aikman and Buck are among my favorite football announcers, but they're not as good as Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth or John Madden and Anyone At All.
"I think it's important for everyone to know that Junior did indeed suffer from CTE," Gina Seau said. "It's important that we take steps to help these players. We certainly don't want to see anything like this happen again to any of our athletes."
She said the family was told that Seau's disease resulted from "a lot of head-to-head collisions over the course of 20 years of playing in the NFL. And that it gradually, you know, developed the deterioration of his brain and his ability to think logically."
On Thursday, 80 lawsuits against the NFL related to brain injuries and concussions were combined into one complaint and filed in Philadelphia. The suit also names helmet maker Ridell, and if I'm reading the article correctly, 2100 former players are involved in the case.
Former running back Kevin Turner, now suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease, said:
The NFL must open its eyes to the consequences of its actions. The NFL has the power not only to give former players the care they deserve, but also to ensure that future generations of football players do not suffer the way that many in my generation have. For the longest time, about the first 10 years after I retired in January 2000, I thought I had just turned into a loser overnight. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. It was a very scary proposition -- until I found out there were a lot more guys just like me. I find they had been through some of the same struggles. I realized this is no longer a coincidence.
Back in February, we linked to a Grantland piece by economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier about head injuries leading to the end of the NFL. In their version, injuries to high school and college students result in lawsuits making the sport prohibitively expensive to offer to their students (along with a perception that it's too dangerous for kids to play).
Is this case the beginning of that timeline? Depending on what comes out in the lawsuit, one (unjust) popular opinion will be that the players should have known they were playing a dangerous game and they were handsomely rewarded to boot. It's not really a fair opinion, but people love their football. (You can see evidence of this in the comments to the ESPN article linked at the top.) A best case scenario, I would think, would be for the NFL to settle with some sort of acknowledgement of the issue. Not lip-service, but actual changes to current policies and future support for former players.
In happier NFL news, Trick Shot Quarterback, Alex Tanney was signed yesterday by the KC Chiefs. Regardless of setting the NCAA Division III record for passing with 14,249 yards, the NCAA record for touchdowns with 157, and only throwing 30 interceptions in college, Tanney had gone undrafted.
This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players -- or worse, high schoolers -- commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn't worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it's mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.
The NFL regards the "All-22" footage of their games -- the zoomed-out view of the game that includes the movements of all 22 players on the field -- as proprietary and releases it to very few people. But it's difficult to fully understand the game without it.
For decades, NFL TV broadcasts have relied most heavily on one view: the shot from a sideline camera that follows the progress of the ball. Anyone who wants to analyze the game, however, prefers to see the pulled-back camera angle known as the "All 22."
While this shot makes the players look like stick figures, it allows students of the game to see things that are invisible to TV watchers: like what routes the receivers ran, how the defense aligned itself and who made blocks past the line of scrimmage.
By distributing this footage only to NFL teams, and rationing it out carefully to its TV partners and on its web site, the NFL has created a paradox. The most-watched sport in the U.S. is also arguably the least understood. "I don't think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game," says former head coach Bill Parcells. The zoomed-in footage on TV broadcasts, he says, only shows a "fragment" of what happens on the field.
He left several suicide notes and text messages asking for his brain to be examined post-mortem for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a disease caused by repeated untreated concussions now thought to be common among professional football players and other athletes -- which he thought may have led to his depression. An autopsy later revealed that Duerson was right.
Gus Garcia-Roberts has a magnificent story on Duerson -- his childhood, football career, post-NFL life as an entrepreneur, and his dip into bankruptcy and mental illness, both of which he tried desperately to cover until the day he died.
To its black residents, Muncie -- nicknamed "Little Chicago" because it was divisively and forever segregated -- felt like a village. And by his high school graduation in 1978, Dave was the golden child. He was a member of the National Honor Society, had traveled through Europe playing the sousaphone as part of the Musical Ambassadors All-American Band, and in his senior year was voted Indiana Mr. Football. He could run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and throw a fastball at 95 mph. "I thought he might go on to be a senator," Kizer says, "or anything he wanted."
The Los Angeles Dodgers offered Dave a signing bonus to pitch for them. But when the Dodgers' scouts told his father there was "no time for college," Dave later recounted to HistoryMakers, "that was a very short conversation."
He enrolled in his home state's University of Notre Dame on a football and baseball scholarship. Once there, football dominated his schedule, and his baseball prospects faded away.
Dave would later say that, for the career longevity, he wished he had chosen baseball. Decades down the road -- after the undiagnosed concussions, headaches, mood swings, memory loss, erratic behavior, and, finally, the suicide -- his family would agree.
The manufacturing process for the official NFL football made by Wilson:
It's fascinating that every football used in the NFL for the past 20-30 years has been made by Deb, Loretta, Peg, Glen, Emmitt, Tina, Etta Mae, Pam, and Michelle. Also, they call the pre-laced, pre-inflated ball a carcass! (thx, peter)
Update: The NY Times takes a slightly different look at the Wilson factory, through the eyes of Jane Helser, who sewed footballs there for almost 50 years.
The Raiders organization welcomed sixth-round draft choice Travis Goethel Wednesday and said the Arizona State linebacker would more than likely be asked to start as a Bay-area Realtor by the beginning of next season.
In 1994, the spot of the kickoff was moved to the 30-yard line from the 35, allowing for longer returns that put the receiving team into field-goal range with just a few plays or a long penalty. Since then, the team that won the toss won 59.8 percent of the time, because even if it did not win on the first possession, it often controlled field position. The team that lost the toss won just 38.4 percent of the time. And before the kickoff was moved, teams won with a field goal on the opening possession just 17.9 percent of the time. After the kickoff moved, it rose to 26.8 percent of the time.
I'm pretty happy about this. Like I said after the Saints/Vikings game in January:
Congrats to the Saints, but the coin-toss sudden death OT thing has to be the worst rule in sports.
So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps.
The cops also thought it was wrong to drop the case just because a piece-of-shit famous person might be guilty of shooting a piece-of-shit unfamous person in a piece-of-shit part of the city. If prosecutors required every witness to have a pristine record, one detective says, "most of the cases in the city wouldn't be solved." None of the cops doubted for a second that if Harrison was a plumber or a UPS driver instead of a famous athlete, he'd have long since been arrested.
Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants' defensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Rams last January, was one coach who appreciated what [Giants punter Jeff] Feagles could do. "I used to tell Jeff he was our most valuable player on defense," Spagnuolo says. "He didn't worry about his yardage or net punt average. All he worried about was putting our defense in the best position. He's a tremendous directional punter. He was always trying to back the offense inside the 10, and nobody did it better."
And of course I love this quote by Feagles:
The punter's mind is a lot more powerful than his leg.
How accurate are all those preseason predictions about how the coming NFL season will unfold?
In an effort to find out, I collected a number of preseason "team power rankings" two days before the 2009 NFL regular season started in September. These ranking lists are compiled by columnists and pundits from media outlets like Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, The Sporting News, and ESPN. In addition, I collected a fan-voted ranking from Yahoo Sports and the preseason Vegas odds to win the Super Bowl. As a baseline of sorts, I've also included the ranking for how the teams finished in the 2008 season.
Each team ranking from each list was compared to the final 2009 regular season standings (taken from this tentative 2010 draft order) by calculating the offset between the estimated rank to the team's actual finish. For instance, ESPN put the Steelers in the #1 slot but they actually finished 15th in the league...so ESPN's offset for the Steelers is 14. For each list, the offsets for all 32 teams were added up and divided by 32 to get the average number of places that the list was off by. See ESPN's list at right for example; you can see that each team ranking in the list was off by an average of about 6.3 places.
Here are the offset averages for each list (from best to worst):
Offset ave. (# of places)
The Sporting News
The good news is that all of the pundits beat the baseline ranking of last season's final standings. But they didn't beat it by that much...only 1.7 places in the best case. A few other observations:
- All the lists were pretty much the same. Last place Fox Sports and first place CBS Sports differ by less than one place in their rankings. The Steelers and Patriots were one and two on every list and the bottom five were pretty consistent as well. All the pundits said basically the same thing; no one had an edge or angle the others didn't.
- Nearly everyone was very wrong about the Steelers, Giants, Titans, Jets, Bengals, and Saints...and to a lesser extent, the Redskins, Bears, Vikings, and Packers. CBS Sports made the fewest big mistakes; their offset for the Bengals was only 4 places. The biggest mistakes were Fox Sports' choice and the Vegas ranking of the Bengals to finish 28th (offset: 19).
- Among the top teams, the Colts, Eagles, and Patriots more or less fulfilled the hopes of the pundits; only Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated missed the mark on one of these teams (the Colts by 9 places).
- The two "wisdom of the crowds" lists, Yahoo Sports and the Vegas list, ended up in the middle, better than some but not as good as some others. I suspect that there was not enough independent information out there for the crowd to make a good collective choice; those two lists looked pretty much like the pundits' lists.
- The teams who turned out to be bad were easier to pick than the good teams. The bottom five picks on each list were typically off by 3-5 places while the top five were off by more like 8-12 places (esp the Steelers and the Giants). Not sure why this is. Perhaps badness is easier to see than goodness. Or it's easier for a good-looking team to go bad than it is for bad-looking team to do better.
Methodology and notes: 1) I made an assumption about all these power ranking lists: that what the pundits were really picking is the final regular season ranking. That isn't precisely true but close enough for our purposes. 2) I have no idea what the statistical error is here. 3) The 2010 draft order list isn't a perfect ranking of how the teams finished, but it is close enough. 4) Using the final regular season records as the determining factor of rank is problematic because of the playoffs. By the end of the season, some teams aren't trying to win every game because they've either made the playoffs or haven't. So some teams might be a little bit better or worse than their records indicate. 5) The Vegas odds list was a rankng of the odds of each team making the Super Bowl, not the odds for the teams' final records. But close enough. 6) The Sports Illustrated list was from before the 2009 pre-season started; I couldn't find an SI list from right before the regular season. Still, it looked a lot like the other lists and did middlingly well.
I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I'd hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn't come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don't remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you'd get into a collision where everything goes off. You're dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field-fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you're seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions-boom, boom, boom-lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.
Update: From Stephen Fatsis, a list of improvements for the NFL players union to consider to protect the health of the players.
N.F.L. players often get excellent medical treatment, but the primary goal is to return them to the field as quickly as possible. Players are often complicit in playing down the extent of their injuries. Fearful of losing their jobs -- there are no guaranteed contracts in the N.F.L. -- they return to the huddle still hurt.
Let's say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let's say the scientific community -- starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country -- comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?
Goodell faced his harshest criticism from Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who called for Congress to revoke the league's antitrust exemption because of its failure to care adequately for injured former players. "I believe you are an $8 billion organization that has failed in your responsibility to the players," Waters said. "We all know it's a dangerous sport. Players are always going to get injured. The only question is, are you going to pay for it? I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it's the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away."
I was up waaay too early this morning watching some trending topics on Twitter Search and John Madden's name suddenly appeared. When you see a boldface name pop up on Twitter Search like that, it usually means they've died. I'm glad Madden's not dead but I'm sad that he's retiring from calling football games. I know he wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but I loved listening to him.
The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [college QB] Chase Daniel's performance can't be predicted. The job he's being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won't. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft -- that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance -- and how well he played in the pros.
A group of researchers -- Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard's school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress--have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications -- as much as they appear related to teaching prowess -- turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.
The upshot is that NFL quarterbacking and teaching are both jobs that need to be performed in order to find out if a certain person is good at them or not. For more, check out a follow-up post on Gladwell's blog.
The "Star" cam isolates on one player from each team-or, in the case of the Tampa-Seattle game, five different players. Other "stars" have included Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu, Jacksonville QB David Gerrard, and Cleveland wideout Braylon Edwards. For quarterbacks, this feature is a bit redundant-the camera's always on the guy with the ball-but it's fantastic for the other positions. Watching Polamalu fly around the field at full speed on every play is fantastic, and not just because his jouncing hair is hypnotic. Few athletes play with Polamalu's reckless abandon, and it's thrilling to try to forecast collisions by watching him bounce around the iso cam.
The Star cam works even better for receivers. After watching Ward and Edwards for three straight hours, I now understand why so many wide receivers are narcissistic-their job is to run one wind sprint after another with only the occasional ball thrown their way to break up the track workout.
TBS did this for the baseball playoffs too, except that they omitted the actual broadcast online and provided only extra footage/angles. Adding to Slate's complaints of no replays (it's streaming video only, no pausing, etc.) and no stats info on the other angles, I'd add that based on my experience watching the game online last night, they need something other than a test pattern and piercing tone to indicate that the video player is lagging and buffering. Perhaps a silent "please wait, buffering..." message instead?
New for the 2008 NFL season: the NFL TV distribution maps that tell you which football games are going to be broadcast is which parts of the country. They're using zoomable Google Maps this year...here's what a typical coverage map looks like:
During football season in a TV market like NYC, which is dominated by coverage of two local teams (Giants and Jets), this is an essential tool for determining if you're actually gonna get to watch the game you want to on Sunday.
On average, suboptimal play-calling decisions cost each team .85 wins over the course of the season.
In particular, the world champion Giants should have won another game had they called the right plays at the right times. ZEUS also analyzed play calling in "hyper-critical" situations (those fourth-down decisions with five or fewer yards needed for the first down) and found that on average, teams made the wrong calls more than 50% of the time. Here's an interview on the results with the guys behind ZEUS.
The NFL, in their infinitesimal wisdom and utilizing their stupid scheduling/blackout policy, has ensured that the best game of the weekend (Steelers vs. Patriots) will not be shown on TV in the New York City area. We get the hapless Jets instead...a team that not even Jets fans care about at this point in their 3-9 season. Our cable provider doesn't carry any NFL stations and we don't really want to trek out to a sports bar with the kiddo. Are there any other options? An illicit online broadcast? Anything?
Update: We ended up watching the game online -- poor quality, dropped frames, and all. Better than braving the rain and sports bar. (thx to everyone who wrote in, especially kunal)
There is still some faint resistance to the notion that a kicker could ever really do anything great. Brett Favre can throw 10 more game-ending interceptions and fans will still cherish his moments of glory. Reggie Bush may fumble away a championship and still end up being known for the best things he ever does. Even offensive linemen whose names no one remembers are permitted to end their days basking in the reflected glory of having been on the field. Kickers alone are required to make their own cases.
Maybe soccer goalies can identify with NFL kickers?
Long audio interview with Michael Lewis by economist Russ Roberts on "the hidden economics of baseball and football". "Michael Lewis talks about the economics of sports -- the financial and decision-making side of baseball and football -- using the insights from his bestselling books on baseball and football: Moneyball and The Blind Side. Along the way he discusses the implications of Moneyball for the movie business and other industries, the peculiar ways that Moneyball influenced the strategies of baseball teams, the corruption of college football, and the challenge and tragedy of kids who live on the streets with little education or prospects for success."
In addition to the race and class aspect that interests me about the book, The Blind Side is, oh, by the way, also about the sport of football, specifically the left tackle position. In the 1980s, the quarterback became increasingly important in the offensive scheme and rushing linebackers, specifically Lawrence Taylor, became a bigger part of the defensive scheme. This created a problem for the offensive line: protect the valuable & fragile quarterback from the huge, fast likes of Lawrence Taylor, whose Joe Theismann-leg-snapping exploits you've seen replayed on a thousand SportsCenters. The solution to this problem was to hire giant-handed men the size of houses who move like ballerinas to protect the blind side of the quarterback. Thus has the left tackle position become the second-highest paid position in the league behind the quarterbacks themselves.
When I read Lewis' profile of Michael Oher in the New York Times, I had a crazy thought: why not cut to the chase and make the men fit to play the left tackle position into quarterbacks instead? Lewis covers this briefly near the end of the book in relating the story of Jonathan Ogden, left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens:
Now the highest paid player on the field, Ogden was doing his job so well and so effortlessly that he had time to wonder how hard it would be for him to do some of the other less highly paid jobs. At the end of that 2000 season, en route to their Super Bowl victory, the Ravens played in the AFC Championship game. Ogden watched the Ravens' tight end, Shannon Sharpe, catch a pass and run 96 yards for a touchdown. Ravens center Jeff Mitchell told The Sporting News that as Sharpe raced into the end zone, Ogden had turned to him and said, "I could have made that play. If they had thrown that ball to me, I would have done the same thing."
Having sized up the star receivers, Ogden looked around and noticed that the quarterbacks he was protecting were...rather ordinary. Here he was, leaving them all the time in the world to throw the ball, and they still weren't doing it very well. They kept getting fired! Even after they'd won the Super Bowl, the Ravens got rid of their quarterback, Trent Dilfer, and gone looking for a better one. What was wrong with these people? Ogden didn't go so far as to suggest that he should play quarterback, but he came as close as any lineman ever had to the heretical thought.
Many of the left tackles that Lewis talks about in the book can run faster than most quarterbacks, they can throw the ball just as far or farther (as a high school sophomore, Michael Oher could stand at the fifty-yard line and toss footballs through the goalposts), possess great athletic touch and finesse, have the intellect to run an offense, move better than most QBs, know the offense and defense as well as the QB, are taller than the average QB (and therefore has better field vision over the line), and presumably, at 320-360 pounds, are harder to tackle and intimidate than a normal QB. Sounds like a good idea to me.