The NFL has many problems. Fortunately, we only have the space and time to deal with one of them, because otherwise I'd be ranting on here until I was older and greyer than Joe Gibbs. For this week, we'll concentrate upon 'recognition'.
The NFL is big on recognition. The existence of a player is only validated if he has some sort of statistic attached to him, or some sort of special moment in NFL history. For example, no-one would remember Scott Norwood, had he not shanked the field goal attempt which would've won a Superbowl for the Buffalo Bills, but he did and as a result Jim Kelly has the unenviable statistic of being the only quarterback to be on the losing side in four Superbowls. Similarly, it is unlikely that David Tyree's career will be remembered for anything other than The Helmet Catch in this year's match.
The problem with this approach is that there are many, many players who will go through their career without breaking any significant records or doing something really dumb. How do you mark their careers? This being America, they've come up with two ways - the Pro Bowl and the Hall of Fame.
In this, the NFL is no different to a lot of other sports. Many of them have All-Star games (which is what the Pro Bowl amounts to) and Halls of Fame. The difference is that American Football is played exclusively in America. Even the Canadian version plays to slightly different rules. So, in every other sport, you have the chance of representing your country against another country. In American Football, like in Aussie Rules, you don't get that chance.
All of which means that, to the fan of this game, the Pro Bowl and the Hall of Fame take on a disproportionately large meaning. Getting to the Pro Bowl is like getting an international cap. Which makes it a shame that, every year, the game is as bad as watching an England friendly. Painfully, painfully dire. You'd see more tackling if you installed Dale Winton and Julian Clary as linebackers.
You want to know how bad it is? The game was screened by Fox because, in a very clever deal, if you want to screen the Superbowl, you have to take the Pro Bowl as well. They couldn't be bothered to anything more than their third string commentary team. This, for a game which is screened, for some inexplicable reason, on prime time television.
In truth, there was one decent, hard, tackle in the game. I know this because I only saw the highlights (which marks me out as a positive zealot, as most columnists won't admit to watching it at all) and the tackle was practically 10% of it. That tackle was made by Asante Samuel of the Patriots, representing the AFC. That's the same Asante Samuel who became a free agent last Friday (i.e. available for transfer) and who had one of the worst Superbowls in living memory. No ulterior motive there, then.
Another thing which makes the Pro Bowl a farce is that the coaches have only four days to work with their teams, because they don't get together until after the Superbowl. And the teams themselves are coached by the coaching teams which lost the Championship games in January, so in this case the Patriots and the Chargers. No coaching team, faced with a squad of players who normally represent other sides, is going to give away anything from their own playbook. So each side ends up running the basic plays every team uses, with the odd gadget (trick) play thrown in to entertain the crowd. So, on Sunday, we had a fake punt, two 15 yard penalties for fielding illegal defenses, an NFC touchdown largely due to the AFC only having ten men on the pitch and Devin Hester, the recordbreaking kick returner, opting to throw a pass instead of running a kick back.
The thing which really annoys me about the Pro Bowl, though, is that the players in it are selected with almost half the season still to play. This meant that, among other things, no fewer than 6 of the 22 starting NFC players came from the Minnesota Vikings, despite the fact that, come the end of the season, the Vikes faded faster than a cheap pair of denims in the Hawaii sun. At the same time, there was no place for Eli Manning, Plaxico Burress, David Tyree or most of the rest of the Giants' heroes.
In short, never has a game with 72 points in it (the NFC won 42-30, in case you care) produced such widespread indifference.
The Hall of Fame, however, is almost too far the other way. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, each year at least 15 players are chosen by a variety of means to go forward for election to the Hall. To these 15 are added one, two or three nominations by a 'Seniors Committee', which exists to put forward those long retired players who might otherwise be forgotten. I don't know of any time when that figure hasn't been two. Normally, therefore, there are 17 names up for consideration by an elite group of sportswriters, 44 of them this year.
First of all, there is a ballot to whittle the 15 non-Seniors nominees down to 10. Then the Seniors nominees are added and someone makes a presentation in support of each. Another secret ballot reduces the numbers further to 7, which is the maximum number of inductees each year, for some insane reason. There is then a show of hands for each player, with only those who get 80% of the votes elected.
This year, the vote was a farce. How the selectors arrived at their decisions is incomprehensible to anyone who does not appreciate the monumental ego of some sports journalists. This leads to decisions which sometimes beggar belief. This year, for example, they failed to elect Cris Carter, Bob Kuechenberg and Paul Tagliabue, each one an astonishingly bad decision.
Carter was up for election for the first time. Statistically, only about a sixth of first time nominees get in anyway. But Carter was something special, a receiver of sublime skill and electric speed, who set numerous records during his playing career. Instead, they selected Art Monk, a very good receiver on his 9th attempt to be elected, a fine player in his own right but as close to Carter in terms of talent and ability as Jeffrey Archer is to Geoffrey Chaucer. The reasoning? Basically, the electors had got tired of discussing Monk every year and decided to elect him to put an end to the debate.
‘Kooch’ was one of the offensive linemen in the Dolphins team which went unbeaten through the 1972 season. He’s been trying to get in for about 18 years now. Applying the same logic which applied to Art Monk, he should’ve been in the Hall in the last century, let alone last year. But he’s not in and he may never get in, because two of his fellow Dolphin linemen are in already and the perception is that, whilst he might be good enough, they don’t want another one of that team in the Hall. Even allowing for the fact that the ’72 Dolphins routinely annoy as many people as they please, with their famous champagne popping celebration when the last unbeaten side in a season is defeated, this is still crazy. If someone is good enough to be a Hall of Famer, they are good enough to be a Hall of Famer. End of story.
It is actually the last of these which really grates with me. Paul Talgliabue wasn’t a player, he was the commissioner of the NFL before Roger Goodell. During that time he expanded the number of teams and brought more money into the game than ever before. He may have been lax on one or two things, and maybe the owners did wring more money out of the TV companies than he thought was possible, but history shows that he was a force for good in the game. There have only been three commissioners in the history of the NFL. Goodell won’t be eligible to enter the Hall until he retires, but Tagliabue’s predecessor, Pete Rozelle is in there despite having achieved no more than Tagliabue did in his time. Having one in and not the other is like electing Bill Shankly but not Matt Busby to a football hall of fame. Yet Tagliabue may never make it (Rozelle took 8 years, but part of that was because he managed to annoy players, fans and journalists alike with his conduct during his final years in charge). Why? Because he didn’t like journalists, didn’t like giving interviews or passing on information. So most journalists don’t like him. Remember who the Hall of Fame electors are? There’s your problem. “Forget how much good the guy did for the game, I could never get an interview from him, so he’s not going in”.
I could write more on this - there’s a whole story on the punter Ray Guy which needs to be told one day - but then I’d never get around to the team-by-team review of the season. One bit of sad news to end with is that the Vikings’ defensive end Kenechi Udeze has just been diagnosed as suffering form leukaemia. In the week where the three Washington Redskins’ players in the Pro Bowl all wore the number 21 in honour of their late colleague Sean Taylor, it is hard to hear of another young talent whose life is in danger.