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I STREAM, YOU STREAM … YOU’RE TOO ADDICTED TO THE NFL TO NOT STREAM
Until King Football stops feeding us compelling story lines — an injured Herbert continuing to play, Hackett choosing a 64-yard kick over Wilson — America inevitably will pay up for streamed gamecasts
Stating what is comically obvious, the NFL doesn’t care about you. The league cares about your money, which explains why Roger Goodell and the owners — sounds like a 1970s lounge band — will gleefully accept $1 billion a year through 2033 so Amazon can stream Thursday Night football games. It means you must ante up for an Amazon Prime membership you otherwise wouldn’t need, in addition to whatever charges you already incur to watch NFL games and other sports on various big and small devices.
The investment is becoming quite costly. It also begs burnout, watching pro and college football for a continuous 100-hour period from Thursday to the edge of the following Tuesday. Do you not have a life? Does your car not need new brakes? Does your kid not need the sickest new sneakers? What about the family vacation on pause since pre-Covid?
The NFL is assuming you’re so addicted to its product that you’ll pay up anyway. And you know what? After an opening week that re-established the league as America’s most popular ongoing form of entertainment — bigger than what’s left of Hollywood, bigger than Harry Styles, bigger than porn, bigger than Tucker Carlson, bigger than King Charles III, bigger than all but TikTok — Goodell and the owners might be right. The ratings arrow always points upward, week after week. You might not pay up just yet, still getting used to Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blinding blue suit and graying beard, the idea of Kirk (BMOC) Herbstreit working an NFL booth and the weirdness of Al (“Do you believe in miracles?”) Michaels lending his golden, 77-year-old voice to a shopping service where people buy cat food in bulk. It should be noted Amazon’s maiden voyage was seen by fewer than the 17.1 million viewers who, on average, watched regular-season games in 2021. But a 13 million average was impressive enough for the debut.
It showed you’ll regularly pay up at some point — as sure as Amazon czar Jeff Bezos and partner Lauren Sanchez shared laughs with Goodell in an Arrowhead Stadium suite — now that streaming is more prominent in U.S. households than cable and broadcast consumption. Because if the NFL does one thing exquisitely, without even trying, it generates story lines that keep us talking day after day. And those stories feed the fascination of fans and the itches of gamblers (I abhor gambling, as you may know). I tried not to watch Chiefs-Chargers. I watched anyway. I stream, you stream, we all stream for … Patrick Mahomes vs. Justin Herbert. The condition is known as FOMO — Fear of Missing Out.
By night’s end — in a week that saw first-year Denver coach Nathaniel Hackett show he already can’t hack it, a week when errant placekickers reminded us why the position is indispensable in FOOTball — we were left to debate the lucidity of Chargers coach Brandon Staley. It wasn’t the first time, recalling his relentless fourth-down gambling last season. Now, why was he subjecting the rib cage of his franchise quarterback, Herbert, to the relentless battering rams of Kansas City defenders as he held his chest in significant pain?
It’s mid-September. When Herbert has 15 games left to claim his first MVP award and lead a playoff run for a team that never has won a Super Bowl, in a Los Angeles market that barely knows the Chargers exist, was it worth the risk of his body breaking in half? Of losing him to a rib injury for large chunks of season in a fruitless attempt to rally the Chargers from a late deficit in Week 2? Herbert was hit at least eight times, twice on sacks, and when he lay sprawled on the field for a couple of minutes, holding his midsection after he was clocked by defensive end Mike Danna, it seemed a good time to re-assess with 5:09 left and the Chargers trailing 24-17. It seemed a better time when Herbert, who missed only one play while he was checked out by the team’s medical staff, immediately was sandwiched by pass-rushers Frank Clark and George Karlaftis. Earlier, didn’t he throw an interception that was returned 99 yards for a touchdown, giving the Chiefs their first lead? Was Chase Daniel not a capable backup QB for at least a while? Lucky for the Chargers, a diagnosis indicated Herbert suffered a fracture to his rib cartilage but didn’t fracture ribs, or so Staley said Friday.
Here’s where such arguments enter the toughness vs. wimpiness zone. No, it’s about common sense. A wobbly Herbert stayed in the game and, remarkably led the Chargers to a touchdown with 1:11 left while using his left arm to protect his ribs. But they still lost, 27-24, and afterward, Staley was as stubborn about keeping his superstar in the game as he was last year about his fourth-down madness.
“It was just a tough NFL game, and he took some big hits,” Staley said after the loss. “He showed us a lot of guts. He showed us what he does every day, that we’re never out of the fight. He brought us back and gave us a chance.”
Wasn’t he concerned about Herbert’s general well-being moving ahead? “No,” he said. “Because he’s Justin Herbert.”
Said Chargers safety Derwin James Jr.: “I know Justin will be fine. He’s a warrior. He’ll be good. I ain’t worried. That boy different. His blood different.”
Um, isn’t Herbert a human being like the rest of us, capable of breaking a rib or two or suffering a serious chest injury? In a league where offensive lines are breaking down routinely, due to injuries and poor play, shouldn’t there be a higher level of precaution for quarterbacks who make or break a franchise? Don’t teams need to protect them, in all ways, better and more wisely than ever before? Disturbingly, the heat-of-the-moment urge to win overtakes all discretion. “You’re not going to see a quarterback at any level of football play tougher and do more for their team and will their team to give them a chance than him,” Staley said. “Nobody can do what he can do. Nobody.”
No one doubts his brilliance. On any list of elite quarterbacks, Herbert has soared into the upper tier and ranks alongside Mahomes and Josh Allen among those in their youthful prime — and not named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. And that’s exactly the point: Doesn’t Staley have to protect his 24-year-old investment, consider the next 12 seasons of what appears to be a Hall of Fame career? Saying he’ll leave the decision to Herbert on whether he’ll start the next game, a week from Sunday against Jacksonville, Staley said, “We have full trust in one another, and he’s going to tell me, he’s going to show me, and the medical people are going to tell me if this isn’t something that should happen.”
Yeah, sure they are.
Maybe it’s a function of pressurized life in the AFC West, one of the most competitive league divisions in recent memory. By now, everyone on Planet Sport realizes Hackett goofed royally — even he has said so — when his mind wandered completely beyond the bounds of logic Monday night. Does he not watch sports documentaries? Didn’t he understand the opportunity and romance of letting $245 million quarterback Russell Wilson, in his first game with the Broncos, try to beat his former team, the Seahawks, as the Seattle fans who once revered him were lustily booing him? No, as the latest in the long line of Geek Generation coaches/managers tethered to analytics, Hackett had determined in pregame warmups that he’d have his big-legged kicker, Brandon McManus, attempt a field goal if the Broncos reached Seattle’s 46-yard line in a game-winning situation. He even told Wilson, who should have ripped off Hackett’s headset on the spot. Sure enough, when Wilson faced 4th-and-5 at the Seahawks 46 with 1:02 left, Hackett didn’t let Russ cook — the very reason he switched teams in the offseason — and allowed the clock to drain so painfully that Peyton Manning, on TV with brother Eli, went heart-attack-level apoplectic.
Wait, with Seattle leading 17-16, didn’t the Broncos still have three timeouts? Why not let Wilson try to convert the first down and at least move closer to game-winning-kick range? After all, didn’t they just pay a fortune to a future Hall of Fame QB after years of failure at the position? Hackett actually was allowing McManus to determine his fate, from 64 yards, rather than entrust Wilson with the very clutch situation he loves? Haven’t only two kickers, in more than six NFL decades, converted a field goal that long? Wasn’t the hostile environment at Lumen Field, where the longest-ever field goal is 56 yards, about the worst place to court stupidity? Wasn’t McManus, despite his strong foot, only 1-for-5 from kicks of at least 60 yards? And if you’re going to be a slave to data, didn’t league teams convert 48 percent of their fourth-and-5 plays last season?
The kick sailed wide left. Nathaniel Hackett now is derisively called Nate, and much worse, in Colorado and throughout U.S. gambling sectors. Next day, he owned his blunder. “Looking back at it, definitely should have gone for it," he said. “One of those things, you look back at it and say ‘of course we should go for it, we missed the field goal.’ But in that situation we had a plan, we knew 46 was the mark.” Would the Broncos had won if lifer Vic Fangio, fired after last season, was still the coach? Wouldn’t he have let Russ cook? Hell, he’d have turned up the stove to high heat, as would most other men worthy of being called an NFL head coach.
Thus ended the worst week of pressure kicking, as The Athletic noted, since 2000. Cincinnati’s Evan McPherson, so reliable under duress as the Bengals reached the Super Bowl, missed an extra point that would have won the game in regulation, then missed with the score tied in overtime. Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell, who also had missed an earlier overtime kick, made one to beat the Bengals. When Rodrigo Blankenship, he of the Wild Thing Vaughn glasses, botched an overtime kick that forced Indianapolis to settle for a tie with lowly Houston, the Colts cut him at once. Atlanta, Tennessee … who wasn’t blowing critical kicks late in games?
The circus served as a reminder. In a sport that trivializes the role of placekickers as a matter of business, to the point where some are ridiculed in the locker room and relegated to back fields during practice, shouldn’t they be viewed almost as vitally to the operation as the quarterback, the left guard, the cover corner and the pass-rushers? Think about it. You sweat and strain and absorb pain and risk your life for three hours, and the ordeal is left to some muscle-challenged guy whose uniform never is soiled. I never would mock him or mistreat him. I’d pray at his feet. In the front office, I’d highly prioritize the position, year after year.
Because, in the NFL, it’s a fact of life that many, many games extend to the final minutes. Or seconds. It’s why I’m committing $14.99 a month to an Amazon Prime subscription and disregarding that I sound like a company shill. You probably are doing the same.
Roger and the owners win. Bezos wins.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.