The NFL needed a bounce back weekend and did not get it. There was a sort of Best of Times, Worst of Times quality about the games and the controversies that have attached to it like a diseased tick. Early in the week, there were signs that perhaps the kneel-downs and various other gestures of protest might be dying off. Enough fans had stayed away from enough games and the television ratings had declined far enough that most of the players seemed ready to give it a rest and find another way. Let Colin Kaepernick make his case in the book for which he was said to have been advanced a cool one million dollars to write.
Not as much as he’d been accustomed to making as an NFL quarterback. But then, the work is considerably less dangerous. If anyone needed a reminder of the physical risks that come with big time football, the case of Chicago Bears tight end, Zach Miller, came as a forceful alert. Miller caught what appeared to be a touchdown pass in a game against the New Orleans Saints. But as he came down with the ball, his right knee buckled and bent in a way that was hard to watch. You knew, right away, that Miller would need surgery on the knee. What you didn’t know, and couldn’t see, was that he had torn the popliteal artery at the back of his knee. The artery supplies blood to the lower leg. So when Miller underwent surgery, it was not merely to save his football career. There was a real possibility the injury would require amputation.
The surgery was, mercifully, successful, saving Miller’s leg.
His touchdown, however, was another matter. It was overruled when officials reviewing video of the play declared Miller had not made a catch. Not, in any event, as a catch is defined in the NFL’s arcane rulebook. The officials who watched the play on the field thought it was a catch, as did most of the fans. But that wasn’t good enough. So the thing was decided as though it were a crime, under investigation, the solution of which would be found in the forensic evidence. And who is the fan to believe, the evidence discovered through intense review of the videos or his own lying eyes? Those guys who made the ultimate ruling were not going on DNA evidence or some equivalent. They were using their eyes and then picking nits and turning the game into a contest of legalisms.
As for Miller… one feels relief for him. It was bad. Very bad. But it could have been very much worse. The game is increasingly defined by injuries that leave the fan with a vague sense of guilt. The only thing unusual about Miller’s injury was its severity. Otherwise, the season-ending injury is a routine event.
Football is brutal and injuries are part of it. And even if some people decide football is just too brutal and stop watching, the games will go on…
Unless they don’t. Because of, say, a work stoppage by the players. It didn’t happen last weekend but one owner seemed to be doing his best to provoke one. Even as there were signs that the whole protest thing might be going away, a story in ESPN The Magazine quoted the owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair, saying that the league had to come down on the players who were continuing to kneel during the playing of the national anthem because, “you couldn’t have the inmates running the prison.”
Well, he not only got the figure of speech wrong but he provoked a near walkout by his own players who were due to fly to Seattle for a game with the Seahawks.
McNair apologized, twice, to the players who talked it over and decided to play the game but to kneel, in unison, during the playing of the anthem.
They knelt. And they lost the game.
They managed this in spite of the play of their quarterback, Deshaun Watson, who is a rookie and may be one of the best ever, as Alabama fans would have been happy to explain to the NFL geniuses after playing him twice for the college national championship and coming away with a split. But the NFL teams found things not to like about Watson so he was taken 12th in the draft, the third quarterback selected. Against the Seahawks, he passed for four touchdowns and more than four hundred yards.
The Texans might have won the game, if the player who had once been the face of the franchise had not been out for the season with an injury. But without J.J. Watt putting pressure on Seattle’s quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks ran up 41 points. Watson threw a late interception and that was the game.
It was one of the better games this season. More like what the NFL fan had come to expect when he settled in on Sunday. Watson’s play, however, may not have been thrilling enough to make many fans forget the way the players took a knee during the playing of the anthem or the line about “inmates” and “prison” that had provoked them.
On Sunday night television, the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions was up against game five of the World Series.
In the ratings, baseball crushed the NFL.
It continues to be that kind of season.
Geoffrey Norman’s column on this year’s NFL season runs early each week.