Four days after his performance against the Seattle Seahawks had people saying Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans was on his way to the best rookie season of any NFL quarterback ever, he went down with a season-ending injury. It wasn’t so surprising that Watson would get hurt. First, because in the NFL just about every player will eventually miss a few games, even a season, due to an injury. Or injuries, which are — we hear, again and again — “just a part of the game.” And, then, because Watson takes risks. He pulls the ball down and scrambles when he cannot find an open receiver and the fan wonders, sometimes, if this isn’t because he hasn’t been looking very hard.
But Watson’s injury didn’t occur during a game when some linebacker finished him off with one of those hits that could crack concrete. He hurt himself during practice and it was a “non-contact” injury. The sort of thing that could happen to you, playing handball.
Also, during the week, the Indianapolis Colts announced that their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck, had not healed sufficiently from shoulder surgery to play this season. Carson Palmer of the Arizona Cardinals had already been finished for the season by an injury. As had Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.
It is a tough game. Always has been. But it seems especially so in a season when the NFL could use some good news and some excitement. Instead, it is a season of injured stars, protesting players, embittered fans, empty seats, and lower television ratings.
Other than that …
I had wondered just how much the game’s glamour and appeal had been diminished by this doleful season and decided to conduct some decidedly non-scientific research. This consisted of visiting, on Sunday afternoon, a few bars where the games would be on the television. Would the patrons, I wondered, even be watching? And if they were, would it be with the old enthusiasm. Would they agonize loudly over the bad calls? Whoop it up when there was a bone jarring tackle? High five the stranger on the next bar stool when someone took it back all the way.
Sunday afternoon in November, with the weekend limping to an end, can be a stretch of empty, baleful hours. There are worse ways to pass them than sitting at a bar, experiencing a kind of anonymous camaraderie with other fans who are also at sixes and sevens, looking for something to get excited about. Chicken wings, cold beer, the NFL on the box… life is good.
So my wife and I took a little tour. We live in the country where there are none of those high tech sports bars with the huge flat screen televisions hung everywhere. So many that you could watch any game on the schedule. Or, for that matter, all of them, more or less simultaneously. Where the sound is loud and surrounds you and the decor is hard and bright.
In the two towns near when I live, things are decidedly less upscale and uptempo. Still, the bars are open on Sunday afternoons, I thought. There would be at least one television — probably behind the bar — and maybe more. There is, after all, almost no such thing as a public establishment without a television. And surely the television would be tuned to the game. Or, if there were more than one set, to the games. And people would be watching while they drank beer and ate potato skins or nachos. Or whatever.
Well, in the first bar we visited, there were three televisions. All of them set on the game between the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams. All of them muted.
This struck me as both odd and counterproductive. If I owned a bar and there was a game on the television, I’d want the sound on and turned up. I’d want customers to hear the cheering and get into the spirit of the thing and, by the way, bring me another beer.
But the Giants and the Rams were going about their business in deathly silence. The customers were all what would probably be designated “working class” by the average snob reporter for CNN. A few of them looked up at the television without much interest. But most of them ignored the games and talked. None of the conversations that I could overhear were about football.
The Giants and the Rams had almost no audience.
The next establishment was closer in design, decor, and spirt to a “real” sports bar. Right down to the team posters on the wall. There was one big, flat panel screen positioned so just about everyone at the bar and tables could see it. There were enough people in the room to give it the feeling of a busy, spirited place. But, then, the place was running a Bloody Mary special. You ordered, got your glass containing a shot of vodka and ice cubes, and then went to a table holding a variety of ingredients you used to build your own drink. If you wanted Tabasco, it was there. Horseradish, likewise. Worcestershire. You could make your drink with tomato juice or V-8 or Clamato. Or, you could use beef consommé to make yourself a bullshot. There were pickle spears, olives, celery stalks. And so forth.
The Bloody Mary bar was a big hit. The games, running on the big screen and several small televisions around the room, were not. There were the usual big plays and big hits and bad calls but none of them seemed to get much of a rise from the Bloody Mary drinkers who watched, when they did, with indifference. The football was just background noise.
The last place was the most disappointing. It was in the center of one of those tough little upstate New York towns where people are hanging on, though it seems things may never get much better and the bright kids move out first chance they get.
There were seven of eight men at the bar making loud and profane conversation. They drank beer that was decidedly not craft brewed. One or two of them looked like they had probably played football once. Back in high school.
They couldn’t, for money, have told you the score of the game being shown on the television behind the bar. There was so little interest in football in that room that the bar’s other television was set on a channel that was carrying an ice skating competition.
Ice skating. With the Cowboys vs. Redskins on another channel. Nobody seemed to know or care.
A small sample, to be sure. And decidedly unscientific. Still… the signs were there and they seemed to say that something has gone out of the game. The old electricity and tension is not there. The sound is muted and nobody is cheering. Or even, perhaps, watching.
Geoffrey Norman’s column is appearing every week this season.