Quick reminder: If you’ve got mailbag questions for tomorrow, send ’em in, or post in the comments below (please identify them as such).
Much like Reagan and the Democratic Party, I didn’t leave American football, American football left me. I’ve always enjoyed the game, but — read this next part in the most sneering hipster tone you can — I stopped watching it before that was cool. It wasn’t the politics; it was the fact that they weren’t really trying to win the game.
Let me clarify: I don’t mean there were coaches or players deliberately throwing games. Nor do I mean that there were lots of coaches and players who were indifferent to success — it takes a certain personality to be into sports enough to make a career of it, and that personality type doesn’t really grok the concept of indifference. What I’m talking about is a kind of systemic indifference, an emergent property of a game becoming a business.
Let me illustrate: Pro football is sold as ruthlessly Darwinian. Miss a single field goal in a clutch situation, buddy, and you’re gone. It’s also ruthlessly specialized: Unlike, say, baseball, where a truly superior glove man can hang around despite his deficiencies at the plate, or vice versa, in football there are no “students of the game” or “veteran locker room presences” or any of those other euphemisms they use to describe guys who aren’t really particularly good at any one thing, but stay on the roster for organizational reasons. It doesn’t matter how great a blocker a running back is, or how well a wide receiver understands the route tree: If he loses a step, he’s gone, because all other aspects of his job pale in comparison to his ability to find, and exploit, that tiny hole.
That’s the story, anyway, but it’s not true. In fact, something like the reverse is true, and everyone knows it. Pick a kicker, google up his resume, and 99 times out of 100 you’ll find that he’s kicked for pretty much every team in the league at some point. Which is just bizarre. There are 32 NFL teams, which means there are 32 kickers in the whole league (nobody wastes a roster slot on a backup kicker). Ruthlessly Darwinian, right? Except… it’s the same 32 guys, season after season. You’re telling me that somehow, in this glorious rainbow of diversity that is the former USA, there are no more than 32 guys who can kick a football?
What about all those guys in college? Hell, why not grab Pepe the Soccer Boy from the nearest favela? As so many of us very, very badthinkers enjoyed pointing out during the Sarah Fuller thing — remember her? seems like a lifetime ago — there are not only a zillion college and high school football players out there, there are zillions more high school and college soccer players out there. Granted there’d be some retraining involved, but you’ve got a huge talent pool of people with a demonstrated ability to kick a leather-covered sphere really, really far. It’s not a particularly rare ability in itself. So why is it the same 32 guys, season after season? Hell, look at Scott Norwood, infamously the least clutch kicker ever to suit up for a pro team. Here’s wiki:
Norwood’s field goal range was unusually short for a professional kicker and he had difficulties in converting field goals over 40 yards throughout his career, especially on natural grass…
Although the Bills signed Björn Nittmo as Norwood’s potential replacement in the 1991 offseason, Norwood remained with the Bills through that season…
Norwood was waived in the first roster move of the off-season after the Bills signed Steve Christie, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
You don’t need to know much of anything about American football to conclude, just from those brief snippets, that Scott Norwood kinda sucked… and yet, he played seven seasons in the NFL, and two more in the short-lived USFL before that. And when he finally was replaced, it was by another long-service nobody (Steve Christie played 15 NFL seasons, with a lifetime field goal conversion rate of 77%… which is 68th overall. He was an all star exactly once).
The explanation, I think, is simple: Big time football — the NFL and the big college teams — is a really small world. Really, really small. Since we like Bill Belichick around here, let’s stick with him. In one of my tours of duty at Flyover State, I got to know a functionary in the football program fairly well. Not one of the guys on the sidelines, but integral to the product. Anyway, this guy, of whom none of y’all would ever have heard, was completely wired in. Flyover State wasn’t small-time, exactly, but they weren’t Power 5 either; the best they usually did was making one of those week-before-Christmas games you see on ESPN2. And yet, this guy knew everybody in the biz, at every level. I don’t think he personally had Bill Belichick’s home number stored in his phone, but he knew a whole bunch of guys who did, and — this is the point — had he ever been in a position to get hired by the Patriots, my buddy knew a dozen guys who could call Bill at home to vouch for him.
And Belichick is the most ruthlessly Darwinian of all the pro coaches. He’s prepared to let anyone walk, if he thinks there’s someone better available. Sometimes he blows it — Tom Brady apparently did ok down in Tampa Bay last season — but as we’ve said, he’s no more shrewd a judge of football talent than the next guy. He’s just more willing to follow through on his judgments, for good or ill. I haven’t run the numbers, obviously, but I’d be willing to be some pretty long money that some significant percentage of first-time coaches, trainers, etc. came up through the Patriots’ system. Everybody else is content to hire the same goofs over and over and over again, though they have mile-long resumes of the most relentless mediocrity.
Sticking with Bill for a sec — and the point’s coming, I promise — he’s also one of the few guys who is willing to look outside the pipeline. You can get a sense of how long it has been since I’ve followed the NFL by the age of this anecdote: Once there was a player named Danny Woodhead. Danny owes his entire 10-year NFL career to Bill. Woodhead, a running back, had three seemingly insurmountable problems breaking into the pros: One, he’s White. I think there’s a White RB now, but back then, the last time a White guy had started at RB was probably the early 1970s. Two, he’s small — listed at 5’8″, 204, which in football-ese probably means 5’5″, 170. Third, he played for a tiny college way out in the boonies in corn country (Chadron State). Thus, despite holding, or being near the top of, a scad of NCAA records, he barely got any interest from pro teams.
Now, if football really were the Hobbesian free-for-all it’s reputed to be, you’d think a guy like Woodhead would generate a lot of interest. Ok, he didn’t go to a big school, and he’s definitely not the biggest guy, and you can argue (probably correctly) that smaller schools mean a lower level of competition, but still — obviously the guy knows a thing or two about running with a football. Even if he can’t hold up an entire pro game in pass protection or whatever, that’s a secondary part of the job. The main part of the job, the one that guys get paid millions of dollars a year to do, is: run successfully with the football. Woodhead appears to be good at it. Surely you could do something with that guy?
And yet, only Bill did. Please note that I’m not in any way suggesting that Bill is some great evaluator of talent, who knows some secret that the rest of the league doesn’t. As I’ve written several times, he’s no better (or worse) than average. It’s just that he’s willing to give a guy with a miles-long track record of success at one level a shot to do it at the next level. It’s really that simple. Much like the “Moneyball” guys in baseball, who were willing to acknowledge and follow through on what everyone knows — that a walk is as good as a hit, because it doesn’t matter how you get on base, only that you get on base — Bill used the mind-blowingly novel approach of letting proven players play.*
That’s why he wins. That’s pretty much it. And yet, nobody else does it.
In effect, football — both pro and bigtime college — are just jobs programs for the old boys’ club. Rookie players from small schools, and undrafted free agents, get cut in training camp all the time, but guys from big schools that got drafted have to work pretty hard to get cut, and it’s insanely hard for coaches, to say nothing of executives, to actually get fired. Instead of everyone pulling out all the stops to win, winning is hardly ever a consideration. It’s far, far more important to be a “team player,” which in effect means: Making sure all the boys keep their jobs, or at least equivalent jobs — if a guy is so obviously out of his depth as a head coach, say, no problem! just make him a defensive coordinator, or an offensive line coach, or the special teams coordinator, or something, anything. Here, have a look.
Note that I deliberately picked a White guy who broke into the pros under Bill Belichick. A 54-52 record in the pros, and 15-9 in college. And having run the NFL’s Houston Texans into the ground — the guy has a well deserved rep as one of the all-time shitty general managers, which is really saying something — he got a college coaching gig at Alabama, perhaps the premier program in college football. There’s seemingly nothing this man can do to get run out of the game. See what I mean?
The point of all this (I promised one was coming) is that despite it all — and none of this is a secret, everyone knows how bad most coaches are — football still has this rep as red in tooth and claw. Even professional sportswriters used to joke about “NFL” standing for “No Fun League,” and not just because the commissioner at one point tried to crack down on ethnic antics like ten-minute end zone dances and whatnot. The game was just boring, and getting worse, because it was the same guys doing the same things, over and over, even when they made no sense. As we noted before, part of it was that the coaches are operating on a different incentive structure. It makes no sense to blitz Tom Brady if you actually want to win the game, but if you want to avoid the worst criticism for losing, it makes perfect sense….
…but another part of it, probably the much larger part, was that even playing the game wasn’t really the point. The games — the spectacle, the stuff those stupid fans thought was the point — were just hoops the organization had to jump through, in order to keep everyone’s best bud employed. If So-and-So actually happened to be any good at coaching, it was a feature, not a bug. The point is simply that he IS a coach (placekicker, whatever), and thus must remain so, and all his buddies at every level of the system will make sure that he does.
Naturally, those types of decisions start to snowball. Pretty soon you see entire franchises — the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cleveland Browns, probably most famously the Cowboys — who seemingly orient their entire corporate culture around covering up for the fact that the senior people suck at their jobs. The senior people hire junior people that also suck, not necessarily because the senior people are bad at talent evaluation — though of course they are — but because they’re not hiring “talent” in the first place. They’re hiring their kids, their buddies, their buddies’ kids, their father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.
Such “competence” as the organization develops, then, is only accidentally about winning football games. Mostly it’s “competence” at covering up how incompetent everyone is, and, most importantly, why everyone is so incompetent. The more the culture shifts that way, the further and faster it has to shift that way….
….and still the myth persists, unless something comes along to bust it up. It was only when the NFL started getting explicitly political that people started noticing, and then the COVID thing happened, as my students would’ve written back in the days, and all of a sudden, people are starting to notice. Even though the on-field product is exactly the same, those “No Fun League” jokes now have a real resonance, since it’s becoming more and more obvious that the games are rigged. Not pro wrestling-style rigged — though I’d put good money that’s coming — but rigged in the sense that nobody involved much cares who wins, so long as everyone gets paid. It’s literally just a show put on for the cameras.
Obviously cici n’est pas une essai about football.
*I could be wrong about this, and again there’s no way in hell I’m running the numbers, but I’m willing to bet that Bill is alone among NFL coaches in never having been fooled by a “workout warrior.” For non-American readers, that’s a guy who has mind-boggling physical stats, but no real accomplishment to back them up. The NFL draft is an entire subject in itself, and in its own right a pretty good illustration of what I’m talking about, but briefly: Athletes are judged at the draft in three main categories — the bench press (number of reps at 225 lbs.), the 40-yard dash, and the vertical leap. Every year, there’s some dude who blows everyone away at the draft combine, gets drafted in the high rounds, and flames out. This is because there’s never a game situation in which you can run 40 yards in a straight line starting from a track stance, or are required to push 225lbs off your chest in a straight line, or can jump straight up in the air without getting plastered. Those exercises are, at best, very loose approximations of raw athletic ability, which in itself means next to nothing.Loading Likes...