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THE NFL HAS US JUST WHERE IT WANTS US: STIRRED AND OBSESSED
An unpredictable postseason ahead, amid a swirling coaching carousel and a madcap finish in Las Vegas, has the American public preoccupied with every 24/7 development
All the games are entertainment extravaganzas now, many watched by tens of millions, in gargantuan studios posing as stadiums. The NFL is bigger than movies, music, TV and every other diversion these days, possibly even sex, given the abrupt recent decline in condom sales.
But if you thought nothing could be zanier than two teams willing to settle for a tie in Las Vegas — though it violates every competitive tenet in the sports handbook, because a $15-billion-a-year league can't figure out a more ethical way to decide playoff berths — just imagine what's ahead the next four weeks.
Would you believe, a Bengals-49ers Super Bowl? Stop giggling. With no dominant contender emerging after a seemingly endless 18-week regular season, which has led to injury attrition as teams try to dodge COVID-19 landmines, anything seems possible this postseason. We could have Jerry Jones winning a championship in this millennium. We could have Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick. We could have the Vegas Raiders, the most popular team in Los Angeles, playing L.A.'s second-most popular team inside the Rams' home stadium, which owner Stan Kroenke built with his Walmart fortunes while Raiders owner Mark Davis shrewdly had Nevada build his.
And, yes, we could have COVID-iot king Aaron Rodgers reaching the big game, then testing positive days before kickoff. Meaning, the NFL and Green Bay Packers would cover up his status to prevent Rodgers from bullying his way into Super Sunday in an anti-vaxx crusade, where Novak Djokovic could join the festivities, perhaps via a Zoom call from an Australian prison.
To say pro football has a 24/7 news cycle is an understated insult to those swept up in it, which could number 331 million Americans at this point, or every man, woman and child who knows what a "red zone'' is. Television ratings, combined with digital numbers, are at their highest level in six years. The tempest still was raging over L.A. Chargers coach Brandon Staley — who saved the league from a conspiracy nightmare when he called a crackbrained timeout, as the Raiders were indicating they were fine with draining the final seconds and allowing both teams to make the playoffs — when Silver-and-Black Sunday bled into Black Monday.
Because more money is at stake than ever, and because competitive hubris is especially desperate and impetuous during a pandemic, owners are more inclined to stage executions for those who don't execute. As I write, six teams have openings for head coaches, a number that could grow. There are only 32 franchises, remember, and some are looking for general managers. The Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings have vacancies for both roles, which explains why you're already approaching a mid-life crisis if you were born during their most recent Super Bowl appearances. The Bears, run by a mom-and-pop shop including 99-year-old matriarch Virginia McCaskey, think it's a good idea having 79-year-old Bill Polian advise her football-oblivious son, George, about hiring the proper 2022-relevant leaders to maximize the skills of 22-year-old Justin Fields, who could be the latest quarterbacking bust in what poet Carl Sandburg should have called "the City of Weak Shoulders.'' While they're at it, why not summon 96-year-old Marv Levy? He is old enough to have known Virginia's father, George S. Halas, and they can swap stories.
Such is the madness of the job carousel when teams fail. The Seattle Seahawks still might part ways with Pete Carroll, an all-time great who won a Super Bowl just a few hicccups ago, yet the New York Giants are sticking with overmatched Joe Judge, who insists his farcical coaching reign isn't a "clown show'' when, in fact, it's a steaming s— show. The Miami Dolphins fired Brian Flores after he finished 9-8, with wins in eight of his last nine games, an unfair ziggy which only rousted an appropriate hue-and-cry over a scarcity of minority coaches in a league whose owners who are predominantly white.
A coach who should be placed in a straitjacket, if not fired, is Staley. Trying too hard to manuever the Chargers into the sports conversation, at the helm of L.A.'s least-popular team, Staley cheated his players out of an AFC playoff berth with more delirious game management. There are police chases on the 405 less hysterical than Staley's insistence on thrusting his twisted mindset into every game. It's unnerving enough when he routinely goes for first downs on fourth-and-one, which works more than it should thanks to the poised prowess of prized quarterback Justin Herbert. But Staley cost his Chargers three points they could have used later when, in the third quarter, he tried to convert from HIS OWN 18-YARD LINE.
"I felt like that was going to be a drive-starter for us, generate some steam for our offense,'' Staley said. "I felt like we would get it, felt like we had a good play call. They just ... made a good play.”
Who knew it was a prelude to more maniacal plotting? In overtime, the tie from hell seemed imminent. The Raiders were patient moving the ball downfield, and after the two-minute warning, both teams appeared satisfied to let the game end at 32-32, which would push the Chargers and Raiders into the playoffs and turn Pittsburgh into a war zone after the Steelers were eliminated. The interim Vegas coach, Rich Bisaccia, motioned with two fingers — could it mean he was running out the clock so both teams would win berths? At that point, I flashed back to a 2015 partnership between Davis and Chargers owner Dean Spanos, who tried to team up for a new L.A. stadium in suburban Carson before Kroenke's wealth — and his Jerry Jones connection — won out in Inglewood. Were the Chargers and Raiders, in complete control of circumstances while commissioner Roger Goodell sat helplessly, conspiring to exploit the league for their own benefit? I wasn't the only one on this dark, dirty wavelength.
"We haven’t really touched on this yet, but if this thing were to go into overtime, right? You get down to the last two minutes of the game … and now, decisions, right?” Cris Collinsworth asked in the NBC booth. "I mean, are you gonna be willing to sort of sit there and play for a tie? I think that it’s within your means to do so.''
"You’re a conspiracy theorist,” Al Michaels said.
Collinsworth: "I’m just saying, there’s some complexity to this thing.''
Michaels: "There certainly is.''
As we braced for a scandal, Scary Staley entered the fray. Of course, he did. With 38 seconds left, and the Raiders out of reasonable field-goal range, he … CALLED A TIMEOUT?
"We needed to get in the right grouping,'' he explained. "We felt they were going to run the ball. So we wanted to ... make that substitution so that we could get a play where we would deepen the field goal.''
Oh, the Raiders ran the ball. But the "right grouping'' backfired on the Chargers' defense, with Josh Jacobs running for 10 yards and giving elite kicker Daniel Carlson an easier attempt from only 47 yards.
"I never was rooting for a tie more in my life,'' Herbert said.
The kick was good.
And the scant fan base back in L.A., which might be in the hundreds, shrieked in horror. In San Diego, the city the Chargers abandoned, they probably laughed and stabbed their Spanos dolls. In Pittsburgh, fans celebrated one last chance to see retiring Ben Roethlisberger, while coach Mike Tomlin was asleep. "I dozed off,'' he said. "I'm probably better off not having watched it.''
Off to the playoffs went the Raiders, much to Goodell's dismay, after a season when $100-million coach Jon Gruden was fired for misogynist, racist and anti-gay emails before receiver Henry Ruggs III sped at 156 mph in the wee hours, drunk on twice the legal limit of alcohol, before slamming into a car and killing the driver.
"We do have a feel-good story, everyone is talking about us, and we’ve been through a lot,” defensive end Maxx Crosby said.
A feel-good story? Only in the NFL.
I would make playoff predictions, but why? I'll just be wrong, like the millions of gamblers ready to bet billions. The NFL has us exactly where it wants us — astounded, excited and ready to watch every minute.
Oh, was another coach just fired? Joe Judge? That’s seven openings. Do I hear eight? Nine? Ten?
Jay Mariotti, called “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.