The game I love to watch has been monkeyed with, adjusted, tweaked, watered down, and massaged into an Entertainment Tonight charade that's a mere shell of the manly pursuit it once was.
Icing the kicker. Spiking the ball to stop the clock. Taking a knee. Roughing the passer. ("Oh, I'm sorry – did I rough you?") In the grasp. Running into the punter. Unnecessary roughness. Unnecessary? Are you shitting me? Of course it's necessary! I want to see a guy leaving the field after a tackle, trying to keep his lung from falling out onto the turf.
As I watched a game last month between Denver and Tennessee, I was perversely satisfied when the Broncos had two strategic time-out calls backfire on them. On the first play, Vince Young dove across the end zone pylon for an apparent touchdown. The refs, however, said no TD, so the teams lined up for another play at the one-yard line. Just before the snap, a Broncos linebacker signaled time out, probably trying to break the Titans' momentum. But since the next play was delayed, the Titans' coach was able to call for a review of the previous play, which then was overturned, giving the Titans a TD. Ha ha, Mr. Gratuitous Time-Out Caller.
Later in the game, the Titans lined up for a long-ass field goal attempt. The camera showed Broncos coach Mike Shanahan standing next to a ref, waiting for the last possible second before the snap, then whispering time-out in the ref's ear, to ice the kicker. The kick went up, and sailed wide left. The play didn't count, of course, but on the re-do, he made the kick. Ha! Three more points up your ass, Shanahan. A time-out is for getting your shit together, not for making the other team stutter-step.
All this stuff just seems to run counter to good ol' smash-mouth football. The rules have evolved over the years to protect the quarterback, to the point where a guy can play for 18 or 20 years. How old is Vinnie Testaverde? 56? What happened to the days when a QB might survive for five years in the NFL, and then be forced to retire with a permanent limp and some mild dain bramage? I mean, come on.
The NFL used to be all about violence and aggression. Dan Jenkins' excellent book, Semi-Tough, is a brilliant and hilarious account of the full-on, hard-drinking, bone-crushing, no-hold-barred days of the league in the 1970s. Nowadays, what do we have? We actually have a rule that says you can't touch the punter! Why is the guy even wearing pads? And no more clothes-lining, no horse-collaring, no tripping, no leg whips, no hammering, no spearing, I tell you, they've taken all the fun out of football.
Another aspect that's been messed with over the years, to no one's satisfaction, is instant replay. [GOML alert.] We've all gotten used to the idea that, if there's a close play, the game will be stopped so the zebras can review it from several angles and still make a bad call, albeit a well-researched bad call. I guess I fall into the category of dinosaurs who don't see instant replay as something that helps the game. It's like this: Either have enough balls to trust the refs and give them total authority to make the right call the first time, or abandon the human element entirely and install sensors and lasers in the field and the football to determine whether or not it has hit the ground, crossed the plane, or gone out of bounds. This middle ground of instant replay is just a big fear of commitment, really.
The players themselves have swung the pendulum way over toward "entertainment" and away from "athletics." Wide receivers spend more time with their choreographers than they do watching game film. Special teams players chest bump each other and exhort the crowd when they manage to hold a kickoff return to the 30. Jesus Christ.
I think the thing that probably bugs me the most is when a guy is obviously going to score on a breakaway run or long pass, and he slows down right before he gets to the goal line, just to show up the defender who's chasing him. Sometimes he'll drag his toes as he runs, arms spread wide in self-glorification. I've seen a couple of the Griz players do this in recent games, and it just really shows a lack of class. I saw one NFL dipstick a couple of weeks ago actually stop and set the ball down just across the line. None of this is new, really, but I can't help but think of Paul Brown's oft-repeated quote to one of his players after a touchdown celebration: "Son, when you reach the end zone, act like you've been there before."
Of course, this being the wafer-thin culture of the U.S., fans tend to lionize the self-congratulatory peacocks like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, while world-class players like Jerry Rice and Steve Largent get fewer accolades with twice the accomplishment.
I was living in Seattle when Largent was breaking records and befuddling secondaries throughout the NFL during his career with the Seahawks. He was a smart, hard-working player who always put his team before his own stats. And he was funny as hell. I remember, in particular, his retirement press conference. One of the reporters asked him, of all the records he now owned, which was his favorite. Largent narrowed his eyes and looked off into the distance, thinking.
"I'd have to say the White Album," he answered.