What’s up with this National Football League season, now firmly underway? If I knew I’d tell you, but I don’t. What I do know is that the “experts” (note the quote marks) have been wrong, as usual. If I said I knew that would make me an expert, and I’d be wrong, too.
One needn’t look past the standings to make that point. The team that went into the campaign as a Super Bowl favorite as a result of last season’s performance and between-seasons maneuverings was the Philadelphia Eagles. They seemed so well put together someone labeled them the “Dream Team.” Now they are 3-4 in the lost-won column and tied for last in their division.
Ditto, almost, for the New York Jets. Widely picked to finally recapture Namath-era glory, they are having trouble on both sides of the ball and trail both New England and Buffalo in the AFC East. The Atlanta Falcons, tabbed as the up-and-comer on the NFC side, are having similar difficulties gaining traction
Wronger yet have been the experts’ assessments of the likely affects of the owners’ lockout that suspended team activities from last March through July. The talking heads on ESPN and elsewhere unanimously decreed that that period of enforced idleness would weigh heaviest on rookie players and teams with new coaches seeking to install their “systems.” The mavens further intimated that without the endless string of rookie camps, mini-camps and “voluntary” workouts teams use to keep their charges busy during the off-season, the oh-so-sophisticated game would fall into a general state of disorganization.
Regarding the latter, the football still looks like football to me. Regarding the former, the best “stories” of the current season have been the revival of the San Francisco 49ers under first-year-head-coach Jim Harbaugh and the excellent play of Cam Newton, the rookie quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.
It’s noteworthy that Harbaugh, who’d spent the big majority of his previous coaching career in the collegiate ranks, easily is the least experienced of the league’s eight new head coaches, and that Newton, with only two full college seasons as a starter under his belt (one of them at a junior college!) is the rookiest of the rookie QBs. Obviously, some guys just know how to coach or play football.
A couple of other things about the NFL have caught my eye this year. To wit:
PLEADING FOR PENALTIES-- Every year for the past several I’ve been dismayed by the blizzard of penalty flags NFL officials generate, and this season’s storm seems to be the worst so far. For this I blame the league’s growing instant-replay culture. With every play subject to microscopic video scrutiny and analysis, field officials are pushed to err on the side of caution, escaping possible criticism by calling penalties when only the hint of them exists. That raises the unhealthy suspicion that they, not the combatants, most determine scoreboard outcomes.
Last April I wrote about the book “Scorecasting,” by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. Its key thesis, backed by research, is that the home-field advantage that’s universal in team sports results mostly from official bias caused by the human desire of refs, umps, etc., to be agreeable to the people closest at hand; i.e., the home fans.
It seems that many NFL players and fans also have read the book. Instant uproars over adverse calls, or the lack of favorable ones, have become the norm around the league, especially regarding the most-odious call of pass interference. Moreover, such demonstrations seem to be working.
I refer especially to a play in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Arizona Cardinals game on October 23 in suburban Phoenix. When a contested pass to Cardinals’ receiver Larry Fitzgerald fell incomplete, Fitzgerald raised his arms in protest as the current script dictates, and the home crowd howled in agreement. After a good 30 seconds, and an officials’ huddle, a yellow flag against the Steeler defender fluttered to earth.
When do officials confer over a pass-interference call? When the home crowd wants them to, I guess.
HOW MUCH IS ONE PLAYER WORTH? Plenty when the player is Peyton Manning. After a 3-13 rookie break-in season in 1998, the nonpareil quarterback led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in 72% of their regular-season games over the next 12 years (138-54) and into two Super Bowls. This year, with him out with a neck injury, they’re 0-8 and, seemingly, headed toward 0-16.
True, these Colts have defects elsewhere than at quarterback. Their offensive line, long a bulwark, has sprung leaks and there must be something wrong with a defense that allows 62 points in a game, as it did against New Orleans a couple of Sundays ago. Still, Manning’s absence has been the main cause of the abrupt 360 in their fortunes.
There’s a nice touch of irony to the Colts’ situation. If they do go 0-16 (or, even, 1-15) they’ll probably have a crack at the clear No. 1 pick in next April’s draft-- Stanford QB Andrew Luck. The only thing that might bother them about taking Luck is that the experts agree he’s a future star, a Manning in the making. That should give anyone pause.