We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Luke O'Brien
To: Daniel Engber, Barry Petchesky
Barry, I love kickoff stats as much as the next guy but I'm not statistically empowered to challenge your analysis of how the new kickoff rule impacts overtime games. I'm also not sure I'd want to. What you say makes good sense. Worse field position is bound to make it harder to score. But does the rule really level out the luck involved in winning an overtime coin flip? Hard to tell, given that we're only dealing with nine overtime games. The rule change was designed to make kickoff returns safer. If an unintended consequence was that it also made overtime less of a roulette spin, I can only say … to hell with that.
NFL overtimes are great because they're unfair. Humans—particularly those prone to sports fandom—crave unfairness. To be more accurate, we crave the opportunity to rail against unfairness. (Ask any Buccaneers fan who grew up in the '70s and '80s.) And there's nothing more randomly unjust than a sudden-death coin toss. I embrace the randomness. It's the only response to an NFL "experience" that has come to feel so contrived.
Games on TV are blaring four-hour commercials for pickup trucks and light beer and more games, broken up by thickset men with dazzling pocket squares jabbering mindlessly while animated robots jitterbug on screen and occasionally some other thickset men in helmets play a sport. In September, this kind of sensory bludgeoning is amusing. By December, it makes me look for a shotgun. We are now three-quarters of the way through the season, and spectator fatigue has set in, at least for me. I blame it mostly on the way the NFL is packaged, not on what happens on the field. Nevertheless, the result is that I yearn for plot twists, even ones as piddling as unfair coin tosses.
Better is when the ghost in the machine arrives holding a clipboard, as Jason Garrett did on Sunday. The inexplicable behavior of the Cowboys coach was the only reason the game went into overtime and required an unfair coin toss. Instead of calling a timeout and another play with Dallas on the Arizona 31 in the waning moments of the game, Garrett wasted 19 seconds having Tony Romo spike the ball. He then called a timeout right before his kicker, Dan Bailey, made what would have been the winning field goal. Bailey missed his next attempt. The game went into overtime, where on the first possession the Cardinals' LaRod Stephens-Howling screamed in for a 52-yard touchdown. I'm going to attribute that outcome to ineptitude, luck, and skill, in that order. And if I were a Cowboys fan, I'd gnash my teeth down to the pulp.
Since we're talking about twists, here's another potentially good one: Brett Favre. It's hard to know what to make of the news out of ESPN yesterday that Favre "would listen" to the Bears if Chicago wanted to pull the relic out of his hunting blind and into a uniform to replace Jay Cutler. The information comes from a "source familiar with the quarterback." Who's that? His agent? (Probably not.) It goes without saying that Favre in Chicago is a bad idea. What's good is if this meta-farce plays out for another week or two. Some people find Favre's retirement-unretirement act exasperating. I can't help but enjoy it. It's a moment of purely manufactured drama—the time of the year when all the NFL's stagecraft is laid bare and the rest of us get to point and laugh. We're somewhere beyond contrivances with Favre, at this point. This is a contrivance about a contrivance set between two mirrors facing each other.
But let me end on a serious twist. For a reason no more complicated than work required it, I was watching the Jaguars-Chargers game last night. The camera kept cutting away to fans wearing enormous fake mustaches to honor the team's new owner, Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-born businessman who wears a lush waxed-tip handlebar. Khan is a naturalized American citizen but the closest thing the NFL has to a foreign owner. (I'm not counting the Vikings' Zygi Wilf because he immigrated as a tot.) Here I will defer to the American Mustache Institute blog for analysis:
[I]t's important to understand the complexity and importance of Mr. Khan's pending ownership in terms of what it represents, as well as the expectations from his broad base of supporters in the Mustached American community.
The National Football League is, without question, an old white boys club. One must only look across the landscape at the likes of the Rooneys in Pittsburgh, Dallas' Jerry Jones, Cincinnati's Mike Brown, the Maras in New York, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, New Orleans owner Tom Benson, Buffalo's Ralph Wilson and the list goes on.
A naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated from Pakistan in 1967, Mr. Kahn [sic] would become the first person of Pakistani descent to helm an NFL franchise. But just as important, his Mustached American heritage would further a new pattern of the traditional NFL owner's mold with the fearsome power of a Burt Reynolds right cross.
This made me wonder how the red-meat NFL audience would react if a truly foreign money-man swooped in and snatched up a team. Because at some point, it's inevitable. Americans have been going overseas for years to buy Premier League soccer clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, usually to the loud dismay of the natives. But those aren't ordinary teams. They are massive brands whose reach extends well beyond their home turf, which is why businessmen covet them. The same is true for certain NFL franchises. The Cowboys have, at the very least, continent-wide appeal. The NFL is also the safest place to park your money if you're looking to invest in American sports. So it's not that much of a stretch to think that a wealthy foreigner will take a run at one of the big teams here someday.
If you're a Redskins fan, you might welcome this development. If you're the NFL league office, you'll probably try to contain and control. If you're anyone else, well, who knows what you'll do? For argument's sake, let's say you're a Broncos fan, and a Middle Eastern sheik who thumps the Koran buys your team. And the sheik demands to bench Tim Tebow. Now that could get interesting.