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.
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From: Tommy Craggs
To: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Josh Levin
I remember a particularly brutal weekend in football last year, after which the whole sport seemed to sit, dazed and googly-eyed, beneath a flock of chirping cartoon birds and tort lawyers. At least five players sustained concussions that Sunday, four of them on what you'd call "flagrant" hits. Things seemed very bad for the game's future.
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What I didn't realize at the time was that all the talk about concussions and violence would coalesce around those "flagrant" hits. That would prove to be a manageable story for the NFL, since "flagrant" implies improper behavior, and improper behavior can be assigned, categorized, and penalized, which is what Roger Goodell does best. More importantly, it shifted the burden of the concussion crisis onto the players and off the game itself, which is how we got James Harrison doing the "I'm an outlaw, and I'll say so in a Jann Wenner magazine" thing this offseason.
I'm thinking about that weekend because a central story of this NFL season has been the quiet, commonplace violence of the sport, not the big hits we saw on that Sunday last year. Michael Vick has now been knocked out of consecutive games on fairly routine plays. The first, on which Vick sustained a concussion, was legal and flukey; the second, on which he sustained a hand injury, was probably an uncalled late hit, but it still fell well south of "flagrant."
Now, Vick is well within his rights to work the refs through the media, but what's interesting about Sunday's game is that the Giants didn't really rough him up, certainly not in the way the Falcons did the week prior. By my rough count, Vick was knocked down on pass plays only five times (I omitted a sack after a brief scramble and a block on Vick, in the wake of an interception, that sent him pinwheeling out onto Broad Street). The Eagles went conservative and very often kept an extra blocker in front of their quarterback. Vick's injury was simply a bad outcome of an ordinary event, and this has to be as galling to the league as it is to Vick himself. Josh, you alluded to this last week, and it bears repeating: The last thing the NFL wants right now is a reminder that the thing that makes football so violent is, well, football. No amount of rulemaking will change that.
That was some Pats-Bills game, wasn't it? It had all the makings of one of those patented New England blowouts in which the Patriots need approximately eight minutes to make the game boring—and then, suddenly, there were the Bills, adjusting, jumping routes that Brady had exploited earlier, and generally doing to the Patriots what the Patriots do to everyone. Is it possible that Bill Belichick actually got outcoached when it mattered on Sunday? And by Chan Gailey, of all people?
I'm looking at this great breakdown of the game's decisive play, the short pass that Fred Jackson took 38 yards to within a yard of the Patriots' goal line, and it's hard not to think that Buffalo was baiting New England here. "It was something we knew would be an opportunity for us to make a play on," Jackson said. "The way they play, the way they blitz to empty. It was something [quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick] and I saw. Any time we line up out there and we point away from a linebacker, this one over here blitzes and leaves that gap open. Fitz held the ball and let me get in the second window and I was able to make a play on it."
And how great was that Belichick tantrum that came directly after the Jackson catch? It's still not entirely clear to me what had gotten Belichick so hot and bothered—his postgame press conference didn't shed much light, and neither did the ref's explanation. But between this and the documentary, there does seem to be an ongoing effort by Belichick to behave like a man who might one day pass a Turing Test.