Professional football players shouldn’t really care about rivalries. Rivalries are for the college game where you find Alabama vs. Auburn, Michigan vs. Ohio Stare, Army vs. Navy, and so on. The passion that surrounds these annual games is intense enough to be frightening. Fans and players really care and will tell you that the game isn’t a matter of life of death… that it is more important than that.
But when you get to the NFL, coaches and players are… well, professionals. Which means you play ‘em, as they like to say, one at a time. (Though it would be interesting to see them try to play ’em two, or even three, at a time.) In the NFL, no matter who you are playing, when you kick it off, it is just another game. You are paid to do your job and the color of the jerseys on the other side of the ball is a matter of indifference that shouldn’t inspire you play any harder or with any more intensity.
That would be… unprofessional.
Still, rivalries have taken root. In the minds of the fans, anyway. And, of course, in the media where the golden throated announcers throw around phrases like, “these two teams really don’t like each other.”
But the players all know that next season, they could be wearing the other team’s jersey. It’s business. You play to win the game and get the check.
Still, of all the faux rivalries in the National Football League, none comes closer to being the real deal than the one between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. For one thing, it goes back to a time when professional football was coming on strong but not yet the national obsession that it eventually became. Players and owners were still hungry. Fans were still willing to sit in bleacher seats without backs. Television was just learning how to bring the game emphatically into your living room. Professional football was a blend of the forces driving America. It was up tempo, high energy, and violent, especially compared to baseball. Success depended on an almost corporate sense of teamwork. And there was something undeniably militaristic about it. Teams marched into the opponents’ territory. Such offensives were stopped by “blitzing” linebackers. Quarterbacks found their receivers with a “long bomb.”
And so forth.
The Packers vs. Cowboys rivalry came out of that time. The Packers were old school, among the original franchises, out of the tough territory of the Great Lakes states. Dallas was new, flashy, and the creation of hot money. All Texas. The Cowboys were the new kids with the cerebral coach, Tom Landry. The Packers were traditionalists, with an intense coach who may, or may not, have said, “Winning isn’t the most important thing; it is the only thing.”
He certainly lived, and coached, like he believed that.
Long before the Super Bowl became a venue for Madonna and Beyoncé, the Cowboys and the Packers played in a memorable game for the opportunity to get there. It was, technically, the semis but everyone knew that the winning team would dominate in the Super Bowl against whichever team came out to represent the upstart American Football League.
The game was played in Green Bay and it was colder, as they say, than a well digger’s butt. Deeply below zero. The field was like concrete. In the player’s hands, the ball felt like a brick.
The teams played hard and the fans hung in and the thing wasn’t settled until the last minute when Green Bay’s quarterback scored on a sneak. It was a game for the ages and resulted in the apotheosis of Vince Lombardi. He was, from then on, the coach of coaches. CEOs, university presidents, and battalion commanders all wanted to be like Vince. Tough, intelligent, and both feared and loved by those they led.
After that game, the NFL rolled on from glory unto glory until… well, lately.
So a fan who just wanted to ignore all the non-football baggage that has been weighing down the NFL this season might have looked forward to last Sunday’s Green Bay vs. Dallas game eagerly and hopefully. Maybe they would play good, hard football without any of the political “take a knee” stuff.
The game was played in Dallas and the old fashioned fan, watching it on television, might have worried, at first, that it would be a blowout. Dallas looked in control and the Packers, when they did score touchdowns, were missing extra points. But Green Bay made a comeback and in the fourth quarter, the lead changed five times.
The Cowboys drove the field, consuming more than eight minutes and scoring with just over a minute left in the game. It was the sort of drive that would, you think, demoralize an opponent. The kind of drive that was characteristic of Lombardi’s teams when they rolled to glory, making it a point to humble their opponents on the way.
After the Cowboys scored to make it 31 to 28, the Packers had just over a minute left. Field goal to tie. Touchdown to win.
Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers made the plays he needed to make with the kind of cool that makes grown men imagine how their lives might have gone if they had just practiced a little harder, lifted a few more weights, studied the playbook with a little more focus… and been born with the gifts that are hidden somewhere in the genes.
The Packers won, 35-31 on a perfect Rodgers pass. Fans from sea to shining sea, watching on television, were spent.
It was some good news, then, for the NFL.
And the NFL could certainly use it.
There is talk of a national boycott of the NFL on Veterans Days. A manifesto is going around the internet. And there was the staged walkout by the Vice President who was attending a game in Indianapolis where Peyton Manning was being honored. The VP left after players took a knee. The air has gone out of the protests, it seems, but there are people who can’t quite quit. The thing has become tedious, but when has that ever discouraged the self-righteous among us?
Damaging as the “take a knee” demonstrations have been to the NFL, the game is more endangered, perhaps, by its own nature. On the same afternoon when the Cowboys and the Packers were crafting another epic, the game lost two of its best and most celebrated players to injury.
J.J. Watt, of the Houston Texans, is a massive, mobile destroyer of quarterbacks and disrupter of offenses. He is also one of those good guy athletes. If you had a son and you couldn’t keep him away from football, you would wish him to become like J.J. Watt.
After the hurricane that drowned Houston, where his team plays and he lives, Watt decided to raise a little money to help the relief effort. So he launched a crowdfunding campaign. The goal was to scrape up $200,000. When the dust finally settled, Watt had raised over $30 million.
He is a good guy, ferocious player, and to look at him, you’d think nothing short of a blindside block from an Abrams tank could injure him. But he missed most of last season and will be out for the rest of this one, too. The NFL’s game is brutal and it breaks even its J.J. Watts.
Also, its Odell Beckhams. The Giants receiver has remarkable hands and the personality of a diva. He pouts and indulges himself in adolescent touchdown celebrations. In one of those, he got down on all fours to imitate a dog and then raised a leg. The opponent’s end zone was, thus, his fire hydrant.
Some people are, it seems, amused by this sort of thing.
Still, Beckham is an undeniable star, a great talent, and… out for the season with an ankle injury.
Several other, less celebrated players were obliged to sit for concussions and all fans know what sort of threat that particular injury represents to the game.
TV ratings are down. Injuries, it seems, are up. Talk of boycotts is in the air.
As the long season of the NFL’s discontent continues, the fan takes ’em where he can find them.
Like in Dallas, last Sunday, when they played a game that reminded you of why so many people once loved this game so much.
Geoffrey Norman’s column, “Fourth and Long for the NFL,” will run early each week this season.