Last Tuesday, the NFL lost one of the most important men in its history: Steve Sabol, co-founder and longtime president of NFL Films. Major League Baseball, supposedly the game most steeped in history of the Big Four sports, couldn’t hold a candle to the irresistibly effective propaganda force that was NFL Films. Watching Sonny Jurgensen and Robert Griffin airing it out for the Redskins doesn’t seem so different once their exploits have both been put to film with a Sam Spence soundtrack. As much as the game has evolved over the years, it was never beyond Sabol’s talent or his vision to bridge entirely different eras and make the connections clear for even the most casual fan.
And yet, for all his success, Sabol’s relationship with the NFL declined over the last several years. His more studied, in-depth coverage of the game wasn’t cost-effective, even though much of NFL Network’s programming is merely cut-ups of NFL Films productions. The aesthetic force that elevated the drama of the game, that introduced us to some of its greatest characters, that caught its most indelible moments, didn’t seem to be worth the money, time, or effort it asked of the league.
The source of this disconnect? Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, who is killing the game he was entrusted with stewarding.
Leaving behind his colossally inept and high-handed punishment of the Saints’ bounty system, the commissioner’s intransigence on resolving the referee lockout has effectively ruined the integrity of the game. As we’ve expected all along, the scab refs’ incompetence has finally cost a team a game. In primetime. On Monday Night Football. Not that the regular officiating crews can’t decide games through human error–just ask the Giants or the Chargers–but it seemed like an inevitability with scab crews of middle school referees, and it perhaps it’s inevitable that another team will lose in the same fashion before the lockout ends.
Just as much as the spectacular litany of errors to close out last night’s game, however, the play-to-play inconsistency and spinelessness the scab refs show is making watching the NFL an ordeal. Reviews are wishy-washy, biased in favor of the home crowd, and interminable. Holding on both offense and defense is rarely called, and pass interference calls seem to be awarded by an audience participation vote. Yardage is randomly awarded depending on whether or not referees remember the rules correctly.
The problem is that we’re powerless to stop this. As Steve Young has pointed out, demand for the NFL is inelastic. We’ll keep watching anyway, no matter how bad the product it puts out becomes. Every game becomes suspect on some level; the Seahawks, last night’s winners, would have been nearly as justified complaining about a loss after egregious missed calls on the Packers. It’s a golden apple of discord thrown into an already-imperfect scenario. And Roger Goodell, more than anyone else–even the cheapskate NFL owners, who are complicit in letting a million-dollar problem ruin their billion-dollar industry–is to blame.
So in this unnecessarily cheapened season, who’s good? Legitimately balanced teams like the Falcons, the Ravens, and the Texans would thrive in any year, but they’ve adapted well to the current climate. Cadres of hardasses like the old-school NFC West–the 49ers, the Seahawks, the Cardinals, and the Rams–may be benefiting to an untenable degree from relaxed attitudes toward defensive holding. Meanwhile, supposed offensive powerhouses like the Saints, Peyton Manning’s Broncos, the Eagles, and the Patriots have struggled to find their footing.
It’s still a small sample size, of course, and we’ve still got a long way to go before we can draw any conclusions beyond “The Falcons, the Ravens, and the Texans are really good.” Speaking as a Saints fan, I didn’t need the scab refs to make for a hard-to-watch season. But man alive, they sure haven’t helped, and it seems like it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. We need people like Steve Sabol now more than ever.
[I still appreciate Jared Odrick trying to help out.]
All things considered, this was a pretty fine week for the “we’re reliving 2007″ thesis.
The mighty Chippewas of Central Michigan beat Iowa, whose coach is paid 3.9 million United States dollars a year not to do that. Kansas State beat Oklahoma, once again showing Bill Snyder’s ability to make paper tigers out of Goliaths. West Virginia’s unstoppable offense struggled with Maryland, and Ohio State was in much more serious trouble against UAB than the final score would suggest. (A side note: UAB has a very bright future under Garrick McGee, assuming he sticks around. His playcalling against Ohio State, featuring the formation diversity and tactical timing we’ve come to associate with his old boss Bobby Petrino, was masterful.)
In the SEC, supposed titan LSU very nearly lost to lowly Auburn. LSU always struggles at Jordan-Hare–excluding Saturday night, they’ve only cobbled together one win in the last ten years–and to some degree rolled with the punches from a talented Auburn defense playing out of their skulls. Those excuses aside, however, the weaknesses I mentioned last week reared their head for the Bengal Tigers: comically poor pass protection and flammable coverage from a young secondary. We saw for the first time just how much LSU missed LT Chris Faulk and DB Tyrann Mathieu, and I don’t expect that it will be the last.
Elsewhere in the conference, Alabama squeezed the will to live out of Florida Atlantic, Georgia stole Vandy’s lunch money, and South Carolina outclassed Mizzou in every phase of the game. After another week’s observation, it appears the East really is on the rise. That’s bad news for LSU, who has to play Florida and South Carolina in consecutive weeks, and Alabama, who may have to avoid a letdown in the SEC Championship Game.
The only other teams I’m willing to consider legitimate contenders are Oregon, who just obliterated Rich Rod’s Arizona Wildcats, and a Florida State team that surmounted a hurdle they’d fall on their face playing in years past. Oregon has to play USC in L.A., but the only other clash of the titans is with Stanford, and that’s in Eugene. Florida State, meanwhile, will have to run the gauntlet of a proud Miami team, Virginia Tech on the road, and a potentially excellent Florida team.
Even with a tiny hierarchy starting to develop, everyone is still very much vulnerable. For another few weeks, chaos reigns.
(Programming note: with the possible exceptions of Stanford-Washington on Thursday night, Georgia-Tennessee, and Texas-Oklahoma State, this is an atrocious weekend of college football. Go outside and enjoy the weather, y’all.)