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Monday, December 10, 2012

Whatever Happened to the NFL?

Howie Long, stalking the line.
Time flies so fast it seems just like yesterday that I used to watch this fun little sport called American Football.  I try to tell my kids about it, but to be honest, I think they believe I'm making it all up.  But I'm not.  And many of you out there know what I'm talking about.
  I suppose what sticks out foremost in my mind are the images of men, I mean real tough hombres who used to line up against each other, stare each other down through a two-bar face mask, wait with the patience of statues (none of this false-start-every-other-play crap), then, at the snap of the ball, they would proceed to try very, very hard to rip each other's heads off.  At the same time, assassins trolled the deep waters of the secondary, scaring the snot out of wide receivers.  This was a time when linebackers had never considered trying to strip the ball from your hands because they were too excited about the chance to make you cough up a kidney.
  Another antique vestige of this former game was something called a quarterback.  These guys were nuts.  They would stand in this small target space called a pocket, and if those hairy apes I mentioned in the above paragraph didn't break them in half, they'd either throw the ball, or tuck it deep in their gut and try to keep that kidney from popping out.  If they saw an escape route and bolted for it, their only hope for survival was to pray that they might make it to the sidelines, otherwise, sliding wasn't going to do them a bit of good.  Those assassins were going to find them, and punish them for entering their domain.
Two power players, Riggins and White collide.
Headaches on the house!
  But for those of you who remember this funny little game, you'll probably want me to point out that throwing the ball was not the first option.  Primarily, the ball was handed off to some tough little bulls known as running backs, who more than likely would run just a bit off tackle, where, instead of being buried immediately, they would actually hit the pile and moved it two or three yards each time.  These not-so-little guys knew how to use their bodies like battering rams, and they weren't afraid to keep at it.
  The funny thing about this is, that the owners of these teams used this spectacle to build up one of the biggest, most popular (and lucrative) sports of all time.  Sadly, some time in the nineties, this sport was deconstructed and no longer exists.  It has been replaced by a game that consists of the far less glamorous Touch-Football-League, where grown men slide to avoid being hit, they can't keep still long enough for the ball to be hiked, they flail their arms at the ball carriers as if they're doing wind-mill exercises (and this is called tackling) and they even have made an art of rushing the punter so as not to ever accidentally bump into him.
  Oh yeah, and did I mention that in the old days, these guys knew how to block on kick-offs and punts without drawing  a flag on every run back?  Or did I mention that place-kickers routinely made 45-yard field goals without much celebration?  In this new football league, we sigh with relief when a twenty-five-yarder squeaks through.
The Steel Curtain abusing the Vikings
  And I don't remember all this discussion of records being set.  First of all, quarterbacks weren't protected to the point that they could stand in the pocket and ring up passing yards like an old lady at a slot machine constantly yanking on its shiny silver handle.  These players were just another one of the guys, toughing out each game with fear and trembling.  And they couldn't pick up a first down any time they wanted to by throwing a bomb at a covered receiver with the assurance of nicking a pass interference call.  Forget that!  Corners and safeties had as much right to fight for the ball as anybody.  Remember, these were men who didn't spend all of their time between plays crying to the refs and begging for flags.
  And they played this crazy game outside, in the cold, in the heat, in the rain, and in the ice and fog.  The fields were actual fields, with potholes, mud holes, grass and sod that stuck in every crevice of their uniforms and exposed body parts.
Vince Lombardi-- a man you did not mess with.
  What my kids really can't understand is that these teams of men were led by some rather strange, scary beings that were known as coaches.  Think of your dad, when you were about four years old, and he looked about four times bigger than he does now, his voice, when angry, made you wish you were still wearing diapers, and his word came from about the same elevation as Mount Sinai.  (It's no coincidence for me that my father was a dead ringer for Chuck Connors, a scary guy who didn't even need that totally crazy-awesome rifle he loved to fire off from his hip.  My dad didn't need that rifle either.  Us kids knew you simply did not mess with The Rifle Man and you did not mess with Dad!)  Sorry, I'll get back to football.  Anyway, these coaches ruled with an iron law that has not been known since the days of Ivan the Terrible.  They weren't evil.  They were just the local deities who required absolute obedience and sacrifice.  I do not remember anyone ever arguing with Tom Landry on the sidelines, except maybe Danny White, who did one time, and I don't think they ever found Danny's body, despite the very well organized efforts of a search party led by Texas Rangers.
  So anyway, it's all just a long lost memory now.  At least we can still access old game film on YouTube, and I do, if only to prove to my kids that this strange league actually did exist.  For now, we're stuck watching the clean, fast, artificial touch football that passes for the NFL today.  After all, what else are we going to watch for entertainment, basketball?  Don't get me started.
  Hold on one minute!  I forgot to mention one other thing.  Fans back then were a lot tougher too.  They stood by their teams, regardless of their standings, because they had no one else to cheer for.  They didn't play this selfish Fantasy Football garbage, where everyone is cheering for guys they have no business cheering for.  And you could invest some emotion in a player that you knew was going to be on your team forever.  Reggie White ended all of that, though, didn't he?  Now, the guy you draft today will be your rival's best player in three years.
Dick Butkus holds the line.
  Last point, honestly.  The old NFL had referees who actually knew their jobs.  There were no huddles for consultation and coin-flipping decisions.  And certainly no instant-replay.  What my father once predicted when instant replay first came into effect has finally come true.  Questioning the referee has led to the inevitable situation where the referees question their own judgement, are hesitant to even make a call now, and since coaches can challenge a call, every player out there thinks he can too.  Major League Baseball understands this.  (At least for now.)  You do not allow anyone to argue balls and strikes.  Period.  The NFL should have realized this a long time ago.  It's too late, however, to go back now.
  Right now I'm wishing I could sit down and watch Jim Plunkett take the Raiders into the frozen realm of Soldier Field or Three Rivers Stadium with the happy knowledge that I would have a front row view of a good-old-fashioned battle.

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