Monday, November 8, 2010

The End Of Football

Yesterday in the second quarter of the Colts-Eagles game, QB Peyton Manning threw a seam route to WR Austin Collie. The ball was perfect, a 20+ yard rope into the soft middle of the Eagles defensive secondary, into the spot where rookie S Nate Allen normally patrols. Allen wasn't there, however, due to an earlier injury. Instead, rookie S Kurt Coleman, trying to make a name for himself after an erratic start to his career, manned the position.

A small note of background. Last year on passes charted to the left and right, the Eagles were a top 5 defensive team, mostly because their best cover guys were the corners, Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown. But the middle? Oh, the middle. It's a real problem, and it has been ever since Brian Dawkins stopped being an asset in coverage, which is to say sometime around 2005, when Jeremy Shockey started owning him. Since then, a parade of insufficient linebackers and safetys have watched opposing tight ends light up the box scores, with small moments of competence wiped up by waves of completions. It was in this moment and setting, with Manning hot, TE Jacob Tamme catching balls like he was Dallas Clark, and the seam receivers running free, that Coleman acted.

Collie caught the ball from Manning in stride, took a step forward with the ball under control, lowered his head in anticipation of contact, and got pinballed between Coleman and safety Quentin Mikell. Despite a height disadvantage against the slot receiver and his need to bring down the man with urgency, Coleman dipped his shoulder with as much technique as you could hope for from a rookie in a bang-bang play. Between the force of the two defenders, Collie was crunched hard, and the ground added injury to injury, as the back of his head slammed into the ground. The ball spilled out as the WR went motionless, and Mikell, acting with the instruction of a lifetime in pads, picked it up and began a runback. The Colts tried to take Mikell down. Here, see for yourself.

To this point in the play, things were violent. In the case of the prone Collie, they were also highly unfortunate. But nothing was, well, wrong. And that's just about the last moment of that game that you can say that about.

Since Collie was concussed, the refs ruled that the defense had committed a foul. Since Collie was concussed, the play was no longer what happened; a catch and fumble caused by the proper application of violence to a receiver working the middle of the field, where there be dragons. Since Collie was concussed, Coleman's hit was ruled helmet to helmet, even though the replay clearly showed that it was not. Since Collie was concussed, CBS tool Phil Simms said that Coleman hit Collie helmet to helmet, and that's how the highlight was narrated by NBC's Dan Patrick in the SNF game, and ESPN later. After all, who are you going to believe -- the medical diagnosis of concussion or your lying eyes?

Coleman, who did nothing wrong except get to the play a second too late to prevent the reception in the first place, is probably looking at a fine that will be considerably larger than his game check. The Colts kept the ball, some generous penalty yardage, and enjoyed the utter violence-free indifference of the Eagle defense after Collie was carted off the field, with Manning choosing to exploit the very same part of the field that had just seen Collie's injury. After all, why not throw there? It's not as if, as in the first 75 years of NFL football, there was any danger to the wideout for going there.

And with that play, some not insignificant at all part of me wanted to no longer watch football. And not for the gruesome sight of Collie being trolleyed off with possible concussion and/or paralysis.

I'm not here to wipe away the sins of defensive players who launch themselves at receivers. I'm also not against a modern era of offense-first football, or to put myself into the Matt Millen Meathead Contingent that believes that concussions are overrated, or that it must be the fault of the QB to put the wideout in jeopardy like that. Quarterbacks have enough to deal with, between protection schemes, play calls and the execution of the throw; expecting them to also make sure that the pass catcher is not put into any jeopardy is just silly. Especially on any play more than five yards off the line of scrimmage.

But what I am here to say is that if wideouts can go over the middle without any threat of physical jeopardy, we no longer have a game that's worth watching. What we have instead is a track meet with footballs as batons... and the reason why football sells a hell of a lot more tickets and television sets than track is because there is physical jeopardy. The immediate aftermath of the game after Collie left was about as compelling as a preseason game. Between CFL teams. In a blowout, in an empty stadium, in weather that prevents throwing. That I didn't grow up with.

Fast forward to the fourth quarter. With the Eagles up 9 and the Colts facing a fourth and 18, Manning went back to pass and found pressure from DE Trent Cole, doing everything he can to seal the win. As Cole came around the edge, he raised his hand to try for a strip or pass deflection, and wond up brushing the QB on the helmet. Manning's body language showed that the contact meant nothing; it certainly did nothing to impede his actions on the rest of the play. Looking to escape Cole's pressure, Manning moved up in the pocket, where he was met by the remainder of the Eagle defensive line. The meeting did not go well for him, as he was sacked and stripped of the football to end his day. The Eagles rejoiced, and the Colts trudged off the field, beaten without question. To a man, none of them expected their day to be anything but over. Even Manning, who was born asking the ref for a better call, was done.

And it all went away again.

Since Cole had touched -- grazed? nicked? left fingerprints? -- on Manning's helmet, and since it was a game-ending play, the refs ruled that this was a blow to the head, an automatic 15-yard flag, and a first down. Since Manning is the face of NFL endorsement and the league's most marketed superstar, I suspect that most neutral observers just shrugged at the call. Good thing for Cole that Manning didn't fake a concussion; I think the refs would have had him taken off in leg irons. I'm also pretty certain that QB Tom Brady would have been puling for the call before the play ended, but that's another matter entirely.

The Colts subsequently scored, again facing a defense that for the second time today had been penalized severly for doing nothing wrong. The Eagles wound up holding on for a 2-point win with the only kind of defensive play that you can, seemingly, still practice without incident -- a contact-free interception.

And after the game was over, all I could think of, rather than feeling relief for the win or amazement at the work of Eagles QB Michael Vick or WR DeSean Jackson, or the promising work done by first-time starting CB Dmitri Patterson, or how clutch K David Akers had been in nailing all of his attempts, or the club's chances next week on the road against the rested Redskins... was how little I enjoyed watching a game in which the defense was so ridiculously hamstrung. Or how random and regrettable the outcomes will seem when European soccer-style injury dives become a necessary tool in every wideout's arsenal, especially on third and fourth down.

(Think I'm overstating the case? In the SNF game, Cowboys WR Roy Williams went down with an apparent concussion to move the sticks in the third quarter, then popped back up and finished the game. Courage, Roy. Courage.)

Football is unfortunate. It's violence punctuated by committee meeting, to quote the single great line that George Will ever wrote. It's mean and it's nasty and people get hurt and have thier lives shortened in a Faustian bargain for fame, adulation and cash.

That bargain is why we watch. That moment where intimidation enters the equation, when one team is just more willing to court pain and injury because they just want the victory more, is why we love certain players and teams. And when teams just go through the motions, or stop playing the game at full speed because everyone has The Fear instead of The Hunger?

Well, hell. I'd rather watch basketball.

Or poker, or movies with my kids, or a series on DVD, or feed my blog, or etc., etc. I'm too old to scream at the refs on my television, and there are other things to do with my time. Yours too, I suspect.

And one final word about this. Wouldn't you love to see two teams with reasonably hard hitting defenses and nothing to play for in Week 17 just make a mockery of the way the game has become? I'm imagining that Niners-Cardinals game, the one that will mean nothing to no one, where both defenses just step aside for a quarter and let each other run down the field for scores. If nothing else, the crying fit from fantasy honks that wind up losing their year over 20 TD days from Tim Hightower and Frank Gore wwould be fun to watch. After a quarter of this, the sides can switch and the offenses can take intentional sacks on two hand touch contact.

It would be, well, more fun to watch than a game in which clean hits result in fines, flags and first downs. And no one would get hurt, or fined, or be put in any kind of danger. The ideal game, really. And not very far from what I watched yesterday...


Bryan Brackney said...

Firstly I was very pissed at asante samuel dancing around austin Collie's motionless body.

My question on the calls is "where do you mark the line," both penalties were close calls, and the refs were told to throw their flags on close calls.

The NFL needs to make some major clarifications about helmet hits

I was very impressed by the play of Dimitri Patterson against Reggie Wayne.

DMtShooter said...

And this just in... no fine on Coleman from the NFL, seeing how he, well, did nothing wrong. Any chance of going back in time and ruling that it was a fumble? Not so much.

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