Friday, January 14, 2011


Unexpected pleasures are the best, which is why I was delighted soon after tuning in to the NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals a couple of Sundays ago. Among the pre-game shots was one of Jim Tomsula, the ‘Niners’ interim head coach, entering the stadium, grinning broadly at and shaking hands or swapping high-fives with just about everyone within reach on his way to the field.

On the greensward, the gaiety continued. The rotund, mustached Tomsula, the team’s defensive-line coach before being elevated to replace Mike Singletary for the last week of the regular season, ranged his bench area, hugging players and functionaries.

Even the commencement of hostilities didn’t cool Tomsula’s enjoyment of the occasion; once foot met ball he seemed as much a cheerleader as a coach, taking obvious delight in his team’s good plays. These turned out to be many as the once-uptight ‘Niners, 5-10 in wins and losses going in, turned in their best performance of the season and emerged with a 38-7 victory. When it was over they gave their coach a Gatorade bath, putting a happy ending on an otherwise unhappy year.

I was happy, too, even though my new-home-city team came out the loser. When, I asked myself, had I seen an NFL coach exude so much genuine good feeling before or during a game? That others shared my view was evident the day after the contest, when I tapped into the NinersNation fan website and found that, in a poll on whether or not to make Tomsula the team’s permanent head coach, yeas outnumbered nays 668 to 90.

That wasn’t going to happen, of course; Tomsula’s credentials and repute were too modest for such an august appointment. Having at least the requisite half a brain, he must have thought so himself or he wouldn’t have behaved the way he did. “Sober as a judge” used to be the common expression of grim probity, but, these days, “sober as an NFL coach” is more apt.

Fact is, a judge-like stance doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming sense of self-importance with which the NFL and its minions regard themselves and their activities. To them, brain surgery is penny-ante poker compared with their, um, game. A few seasons back, when the league was legislating against players’ on-field celebrations, some sportswriters dubbed the NFL the No Fun League. The label still holds even though the players seem to have won the above-mentioned tussle.

The NFL, after all, is the outfit that puts Roman numerals after the editions of its annual title contests, as though the appellation “world’s championship” isn’t grandiose enough. It’s the one that, years ago, sponsored a high-school essay contest on its role in American history, as if it had one.

And it’s the gang that pioneered and champions the practice of reviewing via video replay the decisions of its field officials, putting microscopic analysis to such things as ball spots in the name of fairness and the American Way. It’s like it thinks the republic would crumble if a first down were awarded improperly.

The on-field avatars of the Imperial NFL are its coaches, and a more sour-pussed bunch is hard to find. With few exceptions, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll and the New York Jets’ Rex Ryan, both of whom occasionally show some animation, the football mentors have the collective personality of a boiled turnip, or worse.

Coaches are the most imitative of sorts, and the guy they currently are imitating is Bill Belichick, the chief honcho of the New England Patriots. He’s been hailed as a genius since his team won three Super Bowls during the past decade (in 2001, ’03 and ’04), but he wasn’t so smart when he bombed out after five mostly losing seasons (1991-95) running the less-talented Cleveland Browns.

In 1999 the curt, unsmiling Belichick made history by serving the shortest tenure of any NFL head coach—one day with the Jets, for which he’d been an assistant—before bailing for Boston. His gracious resignation note there exemplified his notion of communications. “I resign as HC of the NYJ,” he wrote (honest).

Belichick roams the sidelines dressed like a construction worker on the job. Not only is he’s the model of coachly paranoia when he covers his mouth with his play chart when mumbling into his head-set, he’s also a partial cause of it. A few seasons ago he was fined $500,000 when one of his assistants was caught taping an opponent’s defensive hand signals for future decoding and use. It’s been alleged that he’s miked his defensive linemen’s shoulder pads to record other teams’ audibles, but that’s never been proved.

Belichick has a 63% victory rate in the league (177 wins-104 losses), proving again that jerks can succeed in his business, but he’s looking up at Tomsula, whose 1-0 head-coaching mark works out to 100%. I find that a pleasant fact.

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