Peter King is on vacation until July 20, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Michael MacCambridge, the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation and several other books.
For as long as I can remember, football has exerted an almost gravitational pull on me. I love many sports, but football remains first among equals, for its action, its grandeur, its scope and its complexity. As the English writer James Lawton once put it in his outsider’s appraisal, “the game has a meaning and a psychology that can never be contained within the parameters of the field . . . If all sport is a magnificent triviality, American football seems least tolerant of the limitations.”
Typically, this time of year has found me renewing my fascination with the game. Save for World Cup summers, the runway is usually pretty clear, and football is next up: The school year is over, baseball has settled into its daily rhythms, the Premier League and Champions League are done and dusted, and the NBA playoffs are wrapping up.
Summer offers the football fan a brief period of anticipatory repose, with the big offseason events (free-agency signings, the college draft, and the release of the schedule) in the rearview mirror. As June turns to July, we wait for teams to report to training camp, and soon the pace quickens: glimpses of live-action scrimmages, the beginning of preseason games, the contentious holdouts, the discouraging August injuries, the final cuts and then, that Thursday after Labor Day, the world champions kick off at home and it is truly football season again. From there, the obsessives and casual fans alike can slip into the rhythms of the game, the serial drama that lasts through the fall and into the winter.
For decades, you could set your watch to the NFL, even during the offseason. When the schedule was released in the spring, you got a glimpse of what your Thanksgiving night was going to look like, and how the games in late December would fit into the holiday season. But now, in the new COVID-19 reality, that’s all written in sand, and a hard wind is blowing. This summer, even the anticipation feels different, tinged as it is with trepidation and uncertainty.
Will there be fans at Arrowhead Stadium to kick off the new season Sept. 10? We don’t know. Will there be a game at Arrowhead Stadium to kick off the new season Sept. 10? We don’t know. It feels surreal, the wish for a timely and complete football season folded with all the other hopes and prayers that the society will be able to return, eventually, to some semblance of normal. And at times like this, the wisdom of football coaches can sound very much like the wisdom of Buddhist monks: “It is what it is.”
When Peter King was kind enough to ask me to fill in for him during a week of his much-deserved vacation, I started thinking about subjects I wanted to write about that haven’t already been ground down to a fine dust in other quarters. I knew I wanted to discuss how we consume football in the modern age—the many ways in which we’re closer to the game than ever before, but also about what we might be missing in this new environment. I also wanted to write about my favorite interviews in football over the past 25 years. Both of those items can be found below, but I want to lead with what feels to me like the most important league-related news of the offseason, one that’s gotten less attention than I expected.
There are 162 regular-season games in a full season of baseball, 82 in the NBA and the NHL, 38 in England’s Premier League, 34 in Major League Soccer and the WNBA, 24 in the National Women’s Soccer League, 22 in the UK’s Premiership Rugby league, and 18 in the National Lacrosse League. It’s not a coincidence that all those figures, across all those sports, are all even numbers. Because one of the first principles of fairness in professional sports is that teams competing have an equal number of home and road games. It’s basic, fundamental component of virtually all leagues.
Except, it seems, the National Football League.
Starting in 2021, in all likelihood, the NFL will move to a 17-game regular season, as permitted in the new collective bargaining agreement signed in March, meaning some teams will have eight home games and some will have nine. In a league whose competition thrives on fine margins, the resulting advantage or disadvantage could be significant.
But for reasons that go far beyond that, the near-inevitable move to a 17-game regular season next year strikes me as the single most troubling competitive change the league has made in more than 30 years, at least since the decision, in the midst of the 1987 strike, to use replacement players to play games that would count in the standings.
This latest move was not exactly buried but also didn’t get a lot of attention when the latest extension to the CBA was announced. The addition of a seventh playoff team in each conference (starting this season) seemed to get more coverage, but I’m convinced that a 17th regular season game will have a more profound effect on the league.
The 17th game is the product of the league’s architects putting an unending desire for more revenue ahead of every other potential consideration, including safety, competitive balance, optics, and common sense. The change is, in a word, dispiriting.
Over the past fortnight, I’ve talked with more than a half-dozen football people whose opinions I respect—two Super Bowl-winning former coaches, two owners, two general managers and a longtime league executive (many of whom asked that their comments be off the record or not for attribution)—and not a single person seemed enthusiastic about the 17th game, each of them recognizing that the change happened for one reason only.
“I don’t see the rationale for it other than it brings in more revenue,” said Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy. “And I think that’s why the players agreed to it, that’s why the owners want it. It’s not something, I don’t think, the fans are demanding. I think people love our regular season, because the games are meaningful. I could understand maybe expanding the playoffs, but to add an odd number of regular-season games makes zero sense to me.”
Even the two owners I spoke to, who supported a 17th game, seemed wholly unenthusiastic, citing the need for more revenue.
“Do I prefer it for the game? I do not,” said one.
As the former Ravens coach and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick put it, after talking with dozens of coaches over the past couple of months, “I’ve not heard of anybody who likes it.”
There are so many things to dislike about a 17-game schedule, and many unintended consequences that could ensue, but I think the biggest concern involves player safety, both the reality and the perception of it.
The greatest problem pro football has faced this century is what to do about the physical trauma that the game exerts on players. There is still much research to be done, and the answers are not as clear-cut as the film “Concussion” would have you believe (read Ingfei Chen’s story in the New Yorker from earlier this year). But it remains an existential challenge that has to be faced at every level of football, from Pop Warner to the NFL.
The one thing we already know is that the players who put their bodies on the line every week are taking significant risks which can and often will affect their long-term health. Because of the riches the game offers and the powerful sense of camaraderie it can provide, it’s a risk they willingly take. Without knowing exactly what the long-term effects are, the risk/reward ratio remains necessarily murky.
But surely the answer is NOT to play more games. The NFL has been bewildering, and at times tone-deaf, on this issue for years. Before offering up a 17-game schedule, Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league leaders floated the idea of an 18-game schedule, while reducing the preseason to two games. This, then, is a half-measure in the wrong direction.
“It’s duplicitous,” said Billick. “We hear ‘safety safety safety’ from the owners, and then how do you justify adding another game now?”
One owner I spoke to gamely made the case that, with the preseason likely cut from four games to three, teams would still be playing 20 games across the preseason and regular season. But that argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; veterans rarely play in the preseason, so they are trading a game they aren’t playing in for one that they will. Another owner noted that there are far fewer days of contact in practice and training camp than a decade ago, which is certainly true. But there’s also no contact like game contact, and a 17th game adds to that.
What I think those in the league—both players and owners—are missing is the way this move sends a mixed message to fans concerned about safety, and breeds a kind of cynicism, making those concerns expressed by both players and owners at least sound hollow.
“I don’t want to hear another word from the players complaining about health issues,” said one rabid fan I know, after the deal was ratified. Indeed, it seems inexplicable that an NFLPA keenly aware of all the issues involving player safety would recommend their membership add games to an already staggering workload.
My guess is the NFL and the NFLPA settled on a solution no one likes because neither side was confident a more reasonable solution could be hammered out in the months ahead. There seems to be a lack of trust on both sides.
So the owners gave the players a package in which a 17th game was tied to more jobs and more benefits, but essentially made clear that it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, and the NFLPA accepted, albeit by a narrow margin (1,019 to 959). The rules that will govern football for the next decade—especially one adding a game to the schedule—should have had more than 52% support of the players.
I understand the desire to grow the game, and the quest for more revenue. But even here, there was a safer, more sensible alternative. What the 17th game will do is add an 18th week of “inventory” for the networks. But the league could have done the same thing and still kept the schedule at 16 games, simply by giving each team in the league a second bye week. If that had been done, it could have been accompanied by a stipulation that the additional bye week would always fall before each team’s Thursday night game, so no team was ever taking the field on three days’ rest. (The Players Association, I’m told, has been opposed to a bye week prior to a Thursday game, because then players don’t get a full week off, although that could be legislated as well.)
One owner insisted there’s no data to suggest injuries occur at a higher rate in the Thursday night games. But the fact remains that many fans perceive the Thursday games as poorly played, and almost all players hate playing on the short week.
“What’s the physical toll?,” asks Billick about the Thursday games on short rest. “I don’t think you can quantify the cumulative effect.”
At the root of all this is the unloved institution of preseason games, which are baked into the NFL’s economic model. You could write a graduate thesis on the decline of exhibition games in American sports. Remember the College All-Star Game that used to begin the football schedule? Remember when Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was the biggest sports event of the summer? Remember when people used to care about the Pro Bowl? (More recently, do you remember when people used to tackle at the Pro Bowl?)
It’s not too late. The league could still decide to stay at 16 games. But no one in football thinks they will. And whether you’re an NFL owner, an NFL player or an NFL fan, that’s a negative development.
The next TV contracts will be bigger, but the game won’t be better, the players won’t be safer, the regular season won’t be more compelling, and the league’s stranglehold on its position as America’s most popular sport will not be solidified.
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” if the NFL goes to a 17-game schedule, the caretakers of the league will regret it. Maybe not in ’21 or ’22 but soon, and for the rest of their lives.
Dungy sees the writing on the wall. Invoking George Young, the Hall of Fame Giants GM and later league executive, Dungy recalled, “George Young used to always talk about, when we’d have a rule change, that ‘the camel is getting its nose under the tent,’ and when we let the camel’s nose get under the tent, nothing good can happen; the tent is eventually gonna tip over, right? And there will be talk in a couple of years about an 18th game, and then there’ll be talk about a 19th game. And so I would have fought it a little harder as a player. But, in the end, the owners won out by telling them how much more revenue they could make.”
As the NFL begins its second century, football fans consume more football news than ever before. In many ways, we are inundated with it, across a myriad of platforms. I’ve been thinking lately about the evolution of how the game is covered, and how that shapes our perception of the sport itself.
When I began actively following football in the early ’70s—as an incurable Chiefs fans growing up in Kansas City—football seasons were characterized by a whole lot of waiting. For starters, I was typically able to watch only half the Chiefs’ games (the half of the 14-game season played on the road) because even after home blackout restrictions were eased in 1973, the Chiefs of that era often didn’t sell out, meaning that beyond the one or two games a year I got to attend, home games were experienced on radio, not TV. Afterward, there was the wait for the local news, to show a few highlights and interviews from the game. Then there was the wait for the Monday morning newspaper, with all the stories and statistics of Sunday’s games. Then there was the wait for the Monday evening paper, with its features and columns. Then there was the wait for Monday Night Football, and Howard Cosell’s halftime highlights of a handful of games—the first reliable chance to watch action from the games that hadn’t been televised on Sunday.
The rest of the week involved more waiting: For Thursday or Friday, and the arrival of Sports Illustrated, where Tex Maule or Dan Jenkins or Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman would cover the big game of the week, or profile a star player or an up-and-coming surprise team. I’d also wait for The Sporting News, which had more pictures and more complete write-ups on teams than I got in the Monday paper. When I had a little money, I’d even try to convince my mom to drive us to downtown Kansas City, to the sprawling Time to Read newsstand on 12th & Main, which was the only place in town that carried the exotic Pro Football Weekly.
I haven’t lived in Kansas City since 1981, so like a lot of other dislocated NFL fans, my entire adult life has been spent someplace else, trying to keep up with the home team. In the late ’80s and ’90s, this was a constant struggle, achieved largely through the team notes in the pages of USA Today, and the short-lived daily sports newspaper The National.
The internet didn’t immediately change that equation in the early ’90s, but broadband did, and soon the constant waiting for news that had characterized football fans’ lives began to change. I still remember a point in 2001 or 2002, shortly after Dick Vermeil took over as head coach in Kansas City, when the Chiefs began showing live coverage of Vermeil’s weekly Monday press conferences during the season. Those sessions were so absorbing, I began working them into my Monday schedule. Vermeil’s players loved him, of course, but so did fans. Part of it was that he understood, during press conferences, that he was communicating not only with reporters, but also his constituents, the fans. For football diehards like me, there was a reassurance to see evidence that the coach cared as passionately about each game as we did. (Virtually all coaches do, of course, but their prickly, standoffish manner in press conferences often works to conceal this fact.)
The beginning of those press conferences being broadcast live were pivotal. It gave serious fans an unfiltered glimpse of an aspect of the game that they’d rarely experienced before. It also set the stage for teams to shape the message, and curate their own version of news, offering a more intimate, if carefully stage-managed, look at what went on beyond the field.
Now, two decades later, pretty much everything comes instantaneously, and we are drinking from a firehose of football information: scores, stories, statistics, columns, highlights, scouting reports, hot takes, fantasy updates, injury reports, mock drafts, power rankings. The things you used to have wait hours or days or the better part of a week for are now delivered to you instantly in an array of different media. (When he was writing for the magazine, Peter King’s deadlines at Sports Illustrated were not that different than they are for FMIA; the difference is, with the magazine, it would be three or four days before people could read his work. Now it goes up on the web in a matter of minutes. The feedback is instantaneous as well.)
Whatever team you may follow, there are more stories to read in a single day than you might have consumed in an entire week just a generation ago. And being in another city is almost immaterial; a Seahawks fan living in Australia can be as well-informed about the team today as a season-ticket holder living in Seattle was in 1995.
While fans in the ’80s had to wait until halftime for scoring updates, we now get live updates on the screen and frequent breaks into one game to show highlights from another. During commercials, you can switch from the game you’re watching to the NFL Network, to sample a rolling series of video updates, or turn on NFL RedZone and just revel in all the scoring opportunities. And while you’re doing any of that, you can also open an app on your phone to see how your fantasy football team is doing this very minute.
Back in the day, people spoke of “water cooler talk” on the day after the game. Our Twitter timelines now bring the water cooler to us, in real time.
As the late afternoon games near their conclusion, NBC starts its Football Night in America pregame show; and by the time Sunday Night Football kicks off, the thing that I waited more than 24 hours for back as a youth—Cosell’s MNF halftime highlights—are already redundant. By midnight Sunday, announcers and writers are already looking ahead to next week’s games.
And still there’s more. If you’re an NFL GamePass member, you can watch replays of any and every game played during the week, either in full or in 45-minute condensed versions (which, let’s be honest, is a pretty nifty way to skim through a game). You can also go back to the coaches’ tape and watch the All-22 footage, and try to figure out why your favorite cornerback kept getting beat deep.
Is it better today? Emphatically so, in countless ways. The sheer volume is staggering, and no matter how much we read or watch or listen to, the supply feels virtually unlimited. Yet despite the torrent of information and analysis, I’ve found myself experiencing a gnawing uneasiness at times, as though something might still be missing.
Last spring, I was reading an interview in Apartamento magazine, with a Nigerian designer named Kenneth Ize. He was asked about the environment in his hometown and replied: “[T]he creative scene in Lagos does not inspire me right now. It is too digital, too scroll. Everything goes out too fast, there’s too much hype and too much insta love.”
I’d never heard the expression “too scroll” before, but I knew exactly what Ize meant. And while I still don’t know the first thing about the cultural scene in Lagos, Ize’s words amount to a pretty good summary of modern football coverage (although I suppose for accuracy sake you would have to add in “insta hate” to the “insta love”).
So the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing an informal survey with many of my football-loving friends, asking them what they enjoy most about the way they consume football today, and if there’s anything they wish was different about football coverage.
The results are unsurprising. Instantaneous information and deep verticality rule, and we love it. Fans get their news faster and know more about their favorite teams than ever before, and that sense of being on top of all the latest developments can be addictive. My friend Chris Brown, a staunch Ravens fan (he went to Ray Lewis’s Hall of Fame ceremony) here in Austin, swears by the ESPN reporter Jamison Hensley, who covers the Ravens. “He gives me real time of what’s going on; I don’t have to wait for a newspaper.”
Fellow Austinite and football lifer Arlyn Owens, a Cowboys loyalist, embraces the effortlessness of following the game today. “Everything is readily available now; I can sit back and just get notifications.”
But the speed comes at a price. Nearly everybody agrees that the signal-to-noise ratio has suffered. “There seem to be more of the loud reporters,” said Tony Owens, Arlyn’s brother, who describes himself as a “reformed” Cowboys fan (he cheered for Jim Kelly’s Bills and then rooted for Peyton Manning throughout his career, before returning to the fold).
There’s also a generational factor that comes into play. I’ve noticed my friends in middle age are still usually geared toward newspapers and beat writers, even if they consume most of that information online.
By contrast, my friend Adam Moses, 36, a long-suffering Bears fan (forgive the redundancy), has grown up with a skepticism of mainstream beat writers, and says, “I’m far more likely to read my favorite bloggers on the Bears, or go on Reddit or Twitter, than I am one of the writers in the Tribune.”
I understand the impulse, though I think in most cases, the best coverage still comes from the insiders, the reporter at the facility, talking with the teams and coaches every day. While the job of a beat writer is much harder than it was a generation ago, the best of them still command a loyal audience. For decades, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been the last word on all things Steelers, and he’s retained that influence into the digital age. (He now writes for The Athletic.) But the access that was guaranteed to beat writers a generation ago is much harder to come by now, as players are less accessible. (They, like the teams, often choose to craft their own messages through social media.) Assistant coaches, who used to be a fount of knowledge in helping reporters understand the game, are now off limits for virtually every team.
Football analytics have opened up a whole other prism through which to view the game, with sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders distilling acres of data in a way that is often revealing.
And it’s not only in analytics that you can break the game down to the most minute of details. A whole universe has opened up in video study. If you’ve read Geoff Schwartz, writing about the intricacies of offensive line play on Twitter, you have a much better sense of the combination of strength and skill required to excel on the front line. Greg Cosell on ESPN and Brian Billick on the NFL Network are both adept at breaking down game detail in a way that is at once instructive and enlightening. This is not only offered at the league level; there are dozens of “film study” guys covering individual teams who can analyze tape like a coach. (Chiefs fans are doubly blessed, with Seth Keysor writing in The Athletic and Craig Stout on Arrowhead Pride.)
By discussing the techniques of the game at a granular level—augmented by film—we see the complex interplay between attack and defense. This is invaluable. Back in the ’70s, we just knew that, say, Joe Greene was a helluva man, and was more or less unblockable. But today, we can watch the havoc wreaked by Aaron Donald, and understand why he’s so good.
Just think of all the information that was available ahead of this year’s NFL draft. Pro Football Focus produced a colorful, voluminous NFL Draft Guide that came in at 1,259 pages. The Athletic produced two massive draft tomes, one by Dane Brugler and the other by Bob McGinn, who took his long-running insider series (replete with candid comments from more than a dozen pro scouts) to the new platform.
I’ve seen archives of teams’ scouting reports for the draft in the 1970s, and after having gone through some of those files, it’s not an exaggeration to say that fans today have more information about draft prospects than many teams had in the ‘70s.
Today, both the teams and the fans are wiser.
“There is no way Russell Erxleben gets drafted in the first round in 2020, right?,” asks longtime Saints fan Ryan Cox. “Knowing so so so much more is obvious.”
We see so much more. But I wonder sometimes, do we understand so much more? One of the issues that gives me pause, both in traditional and non-traditional media, is the level of certainty about what happened and who’s to blame.
Football is arguably the most complicated team sport, and certainly the most interdependent and opaque. In Major League Baseball, the details are right there in the data: Syndergaard couldn’t find the strike zone, or Judge is slumping because he’s swinging at too many breaking balls. The matchups define the game and the results are out in the open.
Football is different; the more I learn about the game of football, the more I understand how little I know.
I remember talking to Bill Polian once, when he was president and general manager of the Colts, and we were discussing the explosion of criticism that came to the sport with the advent of the internet and the pervasiveness of talk radio.
“You know, people ask me right after the game, ‘What happened on that play?’ And I can’t honestly tell them,” Polian said. “I know the playbook, but I have to go through the film the next day, then find out from the coaches what the defensive call was, then talk to one or two of the players and ask them what they remember from the play—‘Who did you think you were covering?, Who did you think had this guy?’—and then, after all that, I might be able to figure out what went wrong.”
Then Polian added: “And even then, I’m not going to publicly say who was responsible.”
So what, if anything, are we truly missing? How could the football coverage be even better? Here are a few things I’d like to see:
• Better Game Stories. When I look at how football has changed in the half-century since I started watching, the thing that’s clearest is that the games themselves—which is, after all, what we watch and why we watch—seem to get less careful attention than they used to, in fact often seem to vanish in importance as soon as they’re over.
I long for the well-written, insightful, comprehensive game story, which drew from all the threads of a contest, to tell not only who won the game, but also how and why. In newspapers, one of the masters of the modern gamer is my friend Bob McGinn, who spent decades at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before migrating to The Athletic. McGinn always had this bulldog tenacity about tracking down one more player to ask one more question. (If you like Xs and Os, you’ll enjoy McGinn’s The Ultimate Super Bowl Book.)
Chuck Culpepper, who covers college football for the Washington Post, also writes absorbing game stories, and always seems to rise to the occasion for the big ones. Take a look some time at his brilliant story on the epic Ohio State-Michigan game of 2016.
Those sorts of game stories for daily papers are treasures, and the result of news organizations prioritizing them. (If you are a soccer fan, read any routine Premier League game story in The Guardian, where the craft has been raised to an art form.)
We also miss the weekly game stories, which could range even further afield. Sports Illustrated, back when it was still a well-written, well-edited literary-minded weekly sports newsmagazine, gave writers a broad canvas and, significantly, more time than newspaper writers, to really chronicle what it was like to be at a particular game. It was also true that SI’s weekly publishing schedule perfectly fit the rhythms of the sport. Writers could report on a game, and fans could receive and read the account, all before the next game was played. In its heyday, I often felt as though a big game wasn’t truly over and done until I read about it in the pages of SI.
Paul Zimmerman wasn’t a great writer but he was blessed with a savant’s attention to the game’s gritty details, and a boundless curiosity. He routinely walked past the quarterbacks and running backs to get to the lineman, and discuss with them what really happened in the trenches. Later, Peter excelled at this as well (read his story on Joe Montana coming back to defeat the Eagles, “That Man Again,” from SI, Oct. 2, 1989), as did—in a far different style—the avid Mike Silver, who in the spirit of getting the story in the ’90s, was more than happy to spend time with key players in the nights before the game at nightclubs, strip clubs and wherever else they roamed.
An aside: One of my favorite tales of game stories involves a college football classic. It was Nebraska at Oklahoma, the game of the century, in 1971. The legendary big-game collector Dan Jenkins was in the press box, writing the lead story for SI. At one point, Jenkins was watching the Nebraska sideline, and saw Huskers head coach Bob Devaney come over to the bench area where Nebraska defenders were seated, and chew them out in a brief tirade. The game ended with Nebraska prevailing, 35-31, in a contest still considered by many to be the best college football game ever played, with heroic performances by Jeff Kinney and Johnny Rodgers on offense, and All-American middle guard Rich Glover on defense.
During postgame interviews with Devaney, Jenkins hung back. Finally, after all the daily newspaper writers had left, rushing off to typewriters, Jenkins had a chance to talk with Devaney alone. He went over the particulars of what Nebraska’s game plan was, and what Oklahoma’s defense was able to take away. Then, finally, Jenkins asked Devaney about his brief sideline tantrum.
“Oh, that,” said Devaney, somewhat sheepishly. “Yeah, I was just asking the defense if anybody wanted to help Rich Glover win the damn game.”
We miss those details too often today, partially because writers aren’t given the time to craft a comprehensive story, due to the breathless race to be first, and partially because many of the postgame interviews are done in a sterile group setting.
Also, the relentless spin forward prevents us from understanding as well as we should the games we’ve just seen. I’d love it if each team in the NFL had an equivalent to what The Anfield Wrap (which covers Liverpool FC in the Premier League) does the day after every Liverpool match. They call it “The Review,” and host Neil Atkinson leads a discussion that includes rapt students of the sport—many who still play the game at some level today—going back and re-watching the game, parsing out strategy, thinking along with the manager, striving to understand the choice and timing of substitutions, reflecting on the pace and tenor of the contest. If ever a sport needs to focus on and savor its games, it’s football—where every game takes on an outsized significance. Placing a higher priority on game stories, and using more resources to review and understand them, would make us smarter, more thoughtful football fans.
• More horizontal coverage. Verticality is great. If you’re a Cardinals fan, you know when a practice-squad player has been moved up to the 53-man roster, and you know his snap counts every week of the season. But do we know other teams as well as we once did? I don’t mean just their skill-position players, and the things we know for fantasy football, like the running back pecking order in Cincinnati or the WR2 in Carolina. I mean why teams rise and fall. I wish I had a better sense of why a team like the Jaguars, which got all the way to the AFC Championship Game in 2017, could be dreadful the next two years. Or just what pieces Sean McDermott put in place to help Buffalo succeed. These days so much attention is paid to individual statistical production that the larger story is often left untold.
• More information on strategy, not just tactics. Football is a match-up game, and we now have the capacity to understand matchups like never before. But I’d like to see more stories and video reviews going beyond the tactics of one-on-one matchups and stepping back to talk bigger-picture coaching strategy.
Everybody knows the Ravens’ run game is a beast, but how do Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh vary in the way they attempt to cope with that? What different ways do opponents have of dealing with the elusiveness of Russell Wilson? And then, closer to home: How is it that everyone in the league knows Andy Reid is going to run screens, and yet the Chiefs continue to find success in their screen game?
This sort of analysis gets into larger areas of game-planning, play-sequencing and play-scripting. It’s more difficult to do, because some of the information is unknowable. But there is so much time available—24 hours a day on the NFL Network, just for starters—and relatively little time spent unpacking this aspect of the game.
• Flexibility in watching telecasts. Suppose you don’t want the fantasy football ticker running across the bottom of your screen. Shouldn’t there be a way to customize your viewing experience?
It’s not just taking things away. My friend Shekar Sathyanarayana, a Chiefs fan in Los Angeles, embraces the glimpses of teams we now get well before kickoff, “the footage pre and postgame, sideline footage, the stuff behind the scenes with players talking and working out before game.” What if he had the ability to see more of that in the hour leading up to kickoff?
Or imagine viewers had the option on Sunday Ticket that fans have on MLB’s Extra Innings package have, which is to choose the announcers they want to hear. (Back in the ‘70s, when Howard Cosell was at once the most popular and most disliked sportscaster in the country, many fans chose to turn down the volume on the Monday Night Football broadcast, and instead get their audio from the CBS national radio broadcast, with Jack Buck and Hank Stram.)
• More print. This is an aging person’s lament, but I miss a lot of what used to be offered in print. Sports Illustrated’s weekly football coverage, for a start, as well as Pro Football Weekly, and the massive sports sections we used to find in newspapers on Sundays and Mondays.
There are other things that can’t really be replicated online. Pro Football Reference has complete year-by-year player and team stats for all of pro football’s hundred years, and game summaries and play-by-play charts going back for decades. It’s terrific. And yet I sympathize with former Colts, Browns and Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, who said he longs for the midweek sports pages that would have the schedule and results for every team in the NFL and every team in major college football. We live in an era devoted to delivering information quickly, but nothing was as fast as having all the information right there on one broadsheet page.
Print also offered something substantial and relatively permanent, as compared to the evanescence of video and the online world. “All the technological advances make today’s coverage superior,” said my friend Kevin Lyttle, longtime fan, writer and editor. “But to me there was just something with more focus and staying power when you knew you absolutely had to grab the Cleveland Plain Dealer or Kansas City Star on Mondays to get the dope on your game, and all week long to follow up and lead into the next game. You weren’t going to six or seven places.”
We’re probably going to keep going to six or seven places, at least. But of course, some things about the way we consume football don’t change. What I do at the end of a game, and have been doing for the better part of 30 years, is get on the phone with my dear friend and fellow true believer, Rob Minter, to compare notes, commiserate over the result, and talk about what we each saw. That shared experience, with a friend or a family member, is a big reason so many of us remain football fans throughout our lives. Here’s hoping that, one way or another, the source of that shared experience returns this fall.
Though I write extensively about sports, I’m not a true sportswriter in the proper sense. I don’t spend any time in locker rooms or press boxes; most of my books have examined the games from a cultural or historical perspective.
But one of the advantages of being an outsider is that, when I do get to talk with a coach or a player, an owner or a GM, I usually have more time, and the discussion often occurs outside the usual setting.
In the past 25 years, I’ve talked with several hundred different people in and around football. Some were famous, some were obscure, but the one thing I realized quickly was that the vast majority of people who make a living in the game truly love it.
Here are my 10 most memorable, most absorbing interviews:
JIM BROWN. I interviewed the greatest running back of all time in his home in the Hollywood Hills in 2000. He said I could have 45 minutes, I wound up staying for 2 1/2 hours, and we stopped only because he had to go to LAX to pick up Bill Russell.
One of the things he talked about was how much he appreciated Blanton Collier, who succeeded Paul Brown as head coach in 1963. “You see coaches sometimes don’t want players to have input—and great players must have input. Because when players got together to discuss things, we could deal with the reality of a play, not the theory of it. Blanton . . . gave us the freedom. And it was the freedom that I remember most. Loved most.”
We discussed a wide array of topics that day, and about 20 minutes into the interview, Brown looked at me, paused, and said, “You bringin’ up some heavy shit.” It was the best compliment I’ve received in my 37-year career as a professional journalist.
AL DAVIS. I started working on a modern history of the NFL, America’s Game, in the second half of 1999, and finished in April 2004. Over that five-year period, I’m sure I called Davis’s office at least 100 times requesting an interview. I always got the same response, from Davis’s eternally patient assistant, Kristi Bailey. She could make no promises, but she’d pass the message along to her boss.
Finally, about a week before the book’s final deadline, Bailey called one day, and said, “Mr. Davis is still considering letting you interview him, but first he wants to interview you, about what your book is going to be about. He will call you later today.”
Later that afternoon, there he was on the line, grilling me about who I’d talked to, what my thesis was, who my publisher was. As I was backpedaling and fielding questions from Davis, it occurred to me within a few minutes that his “interview” of me would actually be my one and only chance to interview him. I finally regained equilibrium and was able to start asking him questions, and he told me some remarkable things about the summer of 1966, when the AFL and NFL agreed to merge.
TONY DUNGY. Early in his tenure coaching the Colts, Dungy let me spend a couple of days with him, on a Monday and Tuesday during the 2003 NFL season. I’ve never had such an intimate look into a coach’s life before. Dungy is exactly what you see on TV—thoughtful, self-effacing, calm to the point of serenity—but what was also clear, in the Colts complex, was his control. On the Monday morning I was there, the offensive line coach Howard Mudd walked in absolutely livid over the performance of one of his players in the previous day’s game. Dungy didn’t raise his voice because he didn’t need to raise his voice, but he calmly and authoritatively placated Mudd.
JOHN “FRENCHY” FUQUA and RON JOHNSON. I traveled to Detroit, in 2013, to do interviews for my biography of Steelers coach Chuck Noll. While there, I met with Fuqua and Johnson together, down in Fuqua’s basement “man-cave,” where Frenchy proudly presided, and the drinks and conversation flowed.
Johnson, who came into the NFL in 1978, was part of the first generation of athletes who’d practiced weight-training as part of a health and nutritional regimen. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and he recalled how shocked he was the first day he walked into the Three Rivers Stadium locker room and saw ashtrays welded to the floor next to each player’s locker. “Ron, you have to understand,” a Steelers’ staffer explained to him, “these are grown men.”
During the course of the interview, Fuqua also confirmed the story about his platform heels with goldfish swimming in them (the goldfish died in the name of fashion), and recalled the outsized influence that Noll had on all of the players, some of whom referred to him affectionately as “Chaz,” though, of course, never to his face.
“The bottom line on Chaz,” said Fuqua, “Chuck Noll, if he’s in the room, no one, I think, from the Steelers really got to know him, or truly understand anything but his teaching.” Implicit in that comment—in light of four Super Bowls in six seasons—was that the teaching was enough.
LAMAR HUNT: I wrote a biography of Hunt, so I’m biased. But he remains one of the most fascinating people in football history, possessed of a restless intelligence and curiosity. He took his lumps as a reserve end for SMU in the ‘50s, playing alongside Forrest Gregg and Raymond Berry. Decades later, there was still wonder in his voice discussing the moment he decided definitively that pro football was the business he wanted to be in. He was down in Houston for the Southwest Conference holiday basketball tournament, and sat on the foot of his hotel room bed, transfixed, watching the 1958 National Football League championship game, the 23-17 overtime classic considered by many to be pro football’s defining game. “My interest emotionally was always more in football,” Hunt said. “But clearly the ’58 Colts-Giants game, sort of in my mind, made me say, ‘Well, that’s it. This sport really has everything. And it televises well.’ And who knew what that meant?”
WILLIE LANIER: The first starting black middle linebacker in pro football history, the Hall of Famer Lanier has always exuded a formidable gravitas.
Lanier grew up in Richmond, Virginia, a city whose main thoroughfare was full of statues of Confederate war generals. On his way to start college at Morgan State University in Baltimore in late August, 1963, Lanier and his father went through Washington, D.C. on the weekend of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Throughout his successful playing career, and the equally successful business career that followed, Lanier always remained cognizant of the larger picture.
A few years ago, I was talking with Lanier and we were discussing a black athlete who had taken a principled social stand in the ‘60s.
“And for that principled stand,” I said, “the media called him militant.”
“If he was white,” replied Lanier evenly, “they’d say he was adamant.”
GOLDIE SELLERS: You know how some people just exude goodness? Sellers was like that; a supporting player on the Chiefs’ 1969 Super Bowl championship team, he was more proof that football players are some of the most interesting athletes in the world. The grandson of a sharecropper, he attended just one day of school prior to his eighth birthday. But Sellers was smart, and a good athlete; he earned a scholarship at Grambling, was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1966, and was traded to Kansas City two years later. After his playing career, he would go on to have a long career as a salesman for Mountain Bell, and up until a couple of years ago, was still substitute-teaching in the Denver school system.
I interviewed Sellers about the 1969 season, for my book ’69 Chiefs: A Team, A Season, and the Birth of Modern Kansas City, and I got a sense of how important that game—and that money—was in the lives of those players. After the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV (and the $15,000 check to each player on the winning team) his wife Peaches, dressed in a white pantsuit, bypassed the hedges surrounding the field in the old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans to give him a postgame hug. “We can build our home!,” she exclaimed. And they did.
Sellers had the slyest line I’ve heard from a Super Bowl champion. “I put that ring on, and people will ask me, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Well, it’s a Super Bowl ring.’ And I don’t wear it all the time, because I’m not a boastful person. And people will say, ‘Which Super Bowl?’ And I’ll just say, ‘Well, I won the Super Bowl back in 1919.’”
And then Sellers laughed. It was a great laugh. He passed away earlier this year.
JOHN UNITAS. I will never forget the two hours I spent with Unitas, in suburban Baltimore. He was in a small, nondescript office for an electronics company. In constant physical pain from the beating he took as a player, he groused about the NFLPA not covering his medical expenses. As he put it, “I’ve got two artificial knees. I didn’t get these from praying.” And in the middle of the interview, the landline on Unitas’s desk would ring, and he’d pick up the phone and answer, “John Unitas, Matco Electronics…” It was not a ceremonial job; Unitas was all business.
LLOYD WELLS: “The Judge.” Someday, somebody will make a film about Wells, one of the most remarkable characters in football history. He was the first full-time African-American traveling scout in pro football (years ahead of the Steelers’ legendary Bill Nunn). I went to interview him in 2004, on Chew Street in downtown Houston. Wells was a raconteur who wore many hats, one of them as a photographer. When I visited him, his front room walls were festooned with nude pictures of women he’d photographed over the years.
After welcoming me into his home and pouring me some iced tea, he made an elaborate show of wanting to get paid for doing the interview. “What do I need to talk to you for?,” he protested. “I’ve had books written about me! Look at all my world championship rings.”
Wells handed me a bowl full of ornate rings, which he cited me as proof of his importance (not that I needed convincing). Several from Muhammad Ali (in the Ali entourage, Wells was known in some circles as “Ali’s pimp,” and was singled out for criticism by Belinda Ali in Jonathan Eig’s authoritative biography of Ali).
Looking through the bowl, I spied a Super Bowl IV ring. And then, another Super Bowl IV ring.
“Lloyd, how do you have two of these?”
“Oh, I lost that first one scuba diving,” he explained breezily.
“Okay, but . . . there’s two.”
“Yep. Found it later.”
He eventually started talking, and we spent the next couple of hours in a wide-ranging discussion about his pioneering experience in pro football. Much of it was bluster, but much of it was vivid and almost all of it checked out. Wells was proud, funny, sharp, and perceptive. (He spoke highly of Lamar Hunt, but dismissed Oilers owner Bud Adams, from his hometown of Houston, as a “peckerwood.”)
At the end of the rambling interview, Wells invited me to his backyard. “I’ve got something to show you,” he said. We passed by a hot tub covered in algae and walked between the detritus of rusted relics, and out to a nicely-preserved ’60s-era white Cadillac convertible.
We stood in front of it.
“You know you’re lookin’ at?,” Wells asked.
I didn’t. And said I didn’t.
Wells took a deep breath and said solemnly, “This is it… car JFK was shot in.”
I looked at it for a moment longer.
“Um, Lloyd . . . wasn’t JFK’s limo black?”
He didn’t miss a beat.
“They painted it,” he said confidently.
I wasn’t about to try to argue that point.
PAUL “TANK” YOUNGER. Younger, a terrific two-way player who might have merited Hall of Fame consideration if he’d played a bit longer, was born too soon. He had the smarts, the curiosity, and the work ethic to have been pro football’s first black general manager, but he never got the shot (though he did serve as assistant general manager of the Chargers for more than a decade in the ‘70s and ‘80s).
Younger was the first player from an HBCU school to make it in the NFL. Before he left for the Rams’ training camp in the summer of 1949, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson impressed upon him the absolute importance of Younger succeeding: “Tank, if you go up there and you don’t make it, there’s no telling how long it’ll be before somebody else gets a chance,” Robinson told him. “They’ll be able to say, ‘We took the best you had to offer, and he wasn’t good enough.’”
Back in Grambling, during that summer of 1949, Robinson and the school’s SID, Collie Nicholson, would walk over to the school library every day after practice, to read the Los Angeles newspapers and check on Younger’s progress, and celebrated when he made the cut.
Of all the former players I spoke with, Younger was the most passionate and eloquent about what the game meant to him.
“I considered it an honor to play in the league,” he said. “And I believe that when you go on that field, you have a responsibility, not only to yourself, but to your ball club and to the fans. I believe that. You hear a lot of folks talk about coaches giving pregame talks, inspirational speeches, and all that bullshit in the dressing room prior to a game. My inspirational speech was when they played the National Anthem. That really got me fired up. It always fired me up and I wanted to go hit somebody. Shit, when they sang ‘o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ I’m ready to go knock the hell out of somebody. And I feel that way today. I’ll be watching a game, they play the national anthem, goddammit, my blood starts boiling.”
“This time may be different. I pray that it is different. This time, many of the protesters are not black. This time, the entire country is engaged. This time, the entire world has taken notice. We have really begun to talk with each other, not just ‘at’ each other. If we can find the strength to come together as a people and fight for healing and change, then together we can enjoy the sunshine of our American ideals. If we do not choose this course, we can expect the darkness to remain.”
—Von Miller, Denver Broncos linebacker, in Time magazine
“I’ve seen all the memos on that, and to be quite honest with you, it’s impossible what they’re asking us to do. Humanly impossible. So, we’re going to do everything we can do. We’re going to space, we’re going to have masks. But, you know, it’s a communication sport. We have to be able to communicate with each other in person. We have to practice.”
—Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh, on league-mandated physical distancing protocols
“With the racial issues going on now, it breaks my heart… I believe in what my parents taught me about at times like this you have large ears—you sit, and you listen, and you learn, and you become better. That’s where I’m at.”
—Chiefs coach Andy Reid
Team, Season — Points Per Game
1. Los Angeles Rams, 1950 — 38.8
Do people realize that the NFL’s single-season team scoring record for most points per game turns 70 this year? The 1950 Rams averaged nearly 39 points a game over a full season; no one else has ever mustered 38. Second place, by nearly a point per game, are Peyton Manning and the Broncos of 2013.
That Rams Offense was sensational. Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield throwing throwing to Tom Fears (84 catches, 1,116 yards) and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch. They scored 43 points one game, 45 points twice, 51 once and, on consecutive weeks in October, dropped 70 and 65 on the Colts and Lions.
Then they fell 30-28 in a classic NFL title game, on a late Lou Groza field goal, to the Cleveland Browns, playing their first season in the NFL. It was a glimpse of football’s future. There were only 14 black players in the league that year. Nine of them were on the field for that game.
I’ve been to a lot of different stadiums to watch football games, and have been greeted with everything from kindness to derision. Even while minding my own business and observing the rules of the road (cheer for your own team, but don’t criticize the home team), I’ve had beer poured on me in two different stadiums in Houston. While I remain convinced that Arrowhead Stadium sets the standard for gameday atmosphere, there’s one road trip that will always stand out in my mind: Green Bay, Lambeau Field, October 12, 2003.
I was living in St. Louis then, and my buddy Rob Minter flew up from suburban Dallas. We then drove to Green Bay, and met up with my friend Patrick Porter and his fellow Packer Backer Reed Crofoot. My old high school friend, Dr. Reggie Givens, also made it, among the contingent of a few thousand Chiefs fans at Lambeau. It was a beautiful Wisconsin autumn afternoon, sun shining, perfect football weather.
And it was a game Kansas City had no business winning and Green Bay had no business losing. The Packers led 31-14 in the fourth quarter, when the Chiefs scored, then intercepted Brett Favre on a pass that glanced off Donald Driver’s hands, and scored again to pull within three. The Chiefs eventually tied the game at 31 and again, in the final minute of regulation, at 34. Overtime was chaos. A long Chiefs drive stalled with a blocked field goal. The Packers took over and handed it to Ahman Green, who reeled off a big run before fumbling. The Chiefs recovered at their own 49 and, on the next play, Trent Green found Eddie Kennison streaking down the sidelines, 51-yard touchdown pass, game over.
Lambeau fell silent. It was eerie. Chiefs fans were too shocked to gloat, Packers fans were too stunned to grouse.
As Rob and I, both decked out in Chiefs red, joined the crowd scrum to file slowly out of Lambeau, we were striving to keep poker faces, but I’m sure we were both suppressing wall-to-wall smiles.
At one point, I felt a heavy hand from behind tapping me on the shoulder; I turned and looked up at the formidable presence of a bearded behemoth in a Packers jersey. And I thought, Uh-oh.
Then the man said: “Thanks for coming. Did you like it?”
I was a little stunned, but I told him that I had enjoyed it, and thanked him for the hospitality. And on our way to the car, three more people either thanked me for coming, or asked if I had a good time, or both.
That’s sportsmanship. That’s Green Bay.
The designer of this has never played football outdoors in Texas… https://t.co/5tLb2AJGH4
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) June 8, 2020
Matt Ryan was asked about the possibility of playing in front of empty stadiums while pumping in crowd noise. “I’m not sure our organization should be talking about pumping in crowd noise.” 😂
— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) June 9, 2020
Hey, here is a really big project that I've been working on since January. A place for folks who love reading about music, playlists, & rabbit holes. I'm very excited to share it & I hope you all will share it as well.https://t.co/raTfLBusSn
— Hanif Abdurraqib (@NifMuhammad) June 11, 2020
Got news of #KenRiley right before Church this morning. all I could think about during service was Riley. couldn't get out of my head…. 1) we are not guaranteed tomorrow 2) the grief his family is feeling 3) how deserving this man was to be in the HOF #RIPKen #bengals 😢🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/Ii0iYVTjf8
— Bengal Jim’s BTR (@bengaljims_BTR) June 7, 2020
A health care worker in New Orleans recently came off quarantine after experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.@Mathieu_Era is helping by paying two months’ rent.
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) June 11, 2020
In this piece for @VICE, I talked to @MLB about why it took them so long to address George Floyd’s death, and about the concrete steps they’re taking to “do the work” they promised in their statement. https://t.co/ApGwPvMSIQ
— Jelisa Castrodale (@gordonshumway) June 5, 2020
1. I think the wisest thing I’ve heard about politics this year came during a lunch I had back in January with the famed baseball writer Bill James. We were talking about the fraught political moment, about principles and values, and Bill weighed in with a perspective—which he repeated later in an email, at my request—that has stuck with me for months.
“It is impossible to state any two values which do not, at some point, come into conflict. That being the case, wisdom exists not in adherence to values, but in recognizing their limits. In ordinary life all sensible people understand this. The fact that meat tastes delicious if cooked for 40 minutes at 350 degrees does not mean that it will taste better if cooked for 80 minutes at 700 degrees. The fact that potato soup tastes better with a smidgen of salt does not mean that it will taste even better with a cup of salt. We all understand the limits of values when they apply to concrete things.
“In medicine, everything which is a poison is also a medicine, and everything which is a medicine is also a poison. I have never found any exception to that rule. All poisons—arsenic, cyanide, radiation, spider venom, formaldehyde, mercury and 10,000 more—they all have medical uses. But all medicines will kill you if you use too much of them.
“But in politics, we talk about values as if they were without limits—almost always. The people who want to raise your taxes now will still want to raise them again after they are doubled, and the people who want to cut taxes and cut government services will want to cut them again when they have been cut in half. Those who argue for harsher penalties for criminals will still argue for harsher penalties after all of their present goals have been achieved, and those who argue for more tolerance of out-of-the-mainstream behavior will still argue for that no matter how much dangerous, out-of-the-mainstream behavior we are already tolerating. True wisdom is in the recognition that there are limits. That’s my argument.”
2. I think that, while I’m often asked what my favorite football books are, my opinion hasn’t changed much over the years:
• The best book ever written about pro football is Roy Blount, Jr.’s classic About Three Bricks Shy of a Load.
• The best college football book is Dan Jenkins Saturday’s America: The Chronic Outrage and Giddy Passion of College Football.
• There’s still no better book of football photography than Neil Leifer’s lavish, intimate Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of Pro Football.
• There’s a deep roster of terrific pro football books that don’t get enough attention, including Jennifer Allen’s insightful Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter; William Gildea’s When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore: A Father and a Son, A Team and a Time (sad to learn that Gildea, a longtime stalwart on the great Washington Post sports staff, passed away this weekend); Robert W. Peterson’s Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football; and Dan Daly and Bob O’Donnell’s The Pro Football Chronicle, which remains informative and eminently readable.
3. I think I’d like to share what my friend Joe Posnanski and his collaborator Dan McGinn are doing. They started a project a while back called Passions In America, designed to “explore the passions that inspire us, unify us, embolden us and give our lives balance, definition, and joy.” Their newest endeavor is called “Photo Forward Feed,” in which they ask readers to snap a picture of something that gives them joy, and forward the photo to Passions in America; for each photo sent, they will donate $10 to the Washington, D.C.-area charity So Others Might Eat. It’s not merely a worthy project; it’s a fun one.
4. I think the people who run the National Football League are less attuned to the nuances of language than their predecessors, like Pete Rozelle, Jim Kensil, George Young, Joe Browne, and Greg Aiello. They’ve now sort of gone along with everyone calling the timeframe prior to free agency “the legal tampering period.” But, to belabor the obvious: If it’s legal, then it’s not tampering; and if it’s tampering, it’s not legal. Tampering would come if teams and players negotiated prior to that window, or signed during that window. It should be called the “negotiation” period. “Legal tampering” is both inaccurate, and awkward.
5. I think that, while I’m eagerly awaiting Bob Dylan’s first album of new material in eight years—Rough and Rowdy Ways, due out Friday, June 19—my favorite album of the year thus far is Cornershop’s somewhat overlooked, but wholly irresistible, England Is A Garden.
6. I think that people who say men don’t care about fashion have never spent much time around football fans after new uniforms are rolled out. The Falcons fan in my cohort was teased mercilessly when Atlanta introduced its new look this spring. In contrast, I got calls from people waxing rhapsodic over the Chargers’ powder-blue updates.
And then there was the abomination by the Los Angeles Rams. I don’t know where the future of sports fashion is heading, exactly, but I promise the committee of designers who worked on the Rams’ new unis that it’s not going to be toward those unsightly gradient numerals.
• Speaking of uniforms, one of the other good things about the way we consume football these days is the attention to detail in Paul Lukas’s Uni Watch column.
• I would love to see the Philadelphia Eagles return to the gleaming kelly green throwback uniforms that they wore in the Michael Vick years.
7. I think that not enough was made of the fact that April was the first game-less month of our lives. I spent more time walking, more time reading, more time watching, and, admittedly, more time drinking. I was fortunate enough to be safe, and healthy, and never bored. But there were no sports, and there really is nothing that evokes exactly the same combination of empathy, excitement, absorption and joy. As the writer Wilfrid Sheed once put it, “Sports constitute a code, a language of the emotions, and a tourist who skips the stadiums will not recoup his losses at Lincoln Center and Grant’s Tomb.”
8. I think one of my favorite stories about how tough the NFL is for rookie quarterbacks comes from Peyton Manning, in his foreword to the NFL 100 book. He was talking to his quarterback coach Bruce Arians during his rookie season. During the film review, they looked at a play where Manning threw the ball away under pressure.
“Why didn’t you throw it to someone?,” asked Arians.
“Nobody’s open,” protested Manning. “The window was like that,” and he held his hands a couple of inches apart to show how little room there was between his primary receiver and the defender.
“Peyton,” said Arians. “That is open in the NFL. That’s what getting open looks like here.”
9. I think that, if you’re looking for something illuminating to read during a chaotic election year, I have two recommendations. The first is These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore, the superb historian whose work often appears in The New Yorker. It’s breathtaking to read a single volume that synthesizes so many different perspectives of the American experience, and whose depictions of major characters and events are so lucidly drawn. The second book, entirely different in scope and tone, but equally compelling, is the writer/illustrator Maira Kalman’s And The Pursuit of Happiness, a discursive and highly impressionistic meditation on what it means to be an American. In both cases, the sum is greater than the parts, and leaves one feeling a connection with and an obligation toward the American idea.
10. I think I’m quite happy that both the 50th and 100th anniversary seasons of the National Football League ended with the Kansas City Chiefs winning the Super Bowl. But I’m afraid if they stay on that schedule, I won’t be around for the next one.
Before I leave, I want to thank Peter King for offering to let me spend a week on the FMIA beat. As a reader who makes this column a part of his regular Monday morning routine, I’ve always been appreciative of the quality of Peter’s work. But now that I’ve done it myself just once, I’m even more impressed with the consistency he shows week in and week out.
Staying in my lane
I’ll leave all the poetry
To bard Peter King