There is the NFL, and then there is football. The NFL is the big business where transparently unqualified doctors are appointed to head vital commissions on brain injuries, where the commissioner shakes down journalists’ bosses at midtown lunches, where rich white men decide they know what’s fairest for American Indians — when they’re not too busy deciding they know what’s fairest for the environment. This is what we discuss and scorn from February to September. But we love football, the beautiful, cerebral, violent game that started play at its highest level on Thursday, to run through February. When football’s really whirring, we agree to overlook much of what’s so ugly about the NFL.
ESPN usually struggles covering the NFL. The Frontline debacle is only the most recent example. ESPN relies on the league for so much of its business and attention — Monday Night Football is its signature franchise. So the network gives lots of screen time to the football reporters offering valuable tidbits about forthcoming injury reports, and not so much to those asking about the league’s harassment of organized labor or wondering how much barbarism young men with nonguaranteed contracts really deserve to face. (I presume these people exist at ESPN, though one rarely sees them.) And its cheerleading analysts make the foot-soldier reporter types seem truly subversive by comparison.
Speaking of cheerleading analysts: Monday Night Football aired tonight. The Redskins and Eagles. A big game, especially for those of us fixated on the NFL’s darker story lines. There’s the abject team name in Washington, which this summer faced truly unrelenting scrutiny for the first time. A couple of high-profile media outlets (Slate, SI.com’s MMQB) have vowed not to use the name; frequent Skins antagonist Dave McKenna hasn’t, as far as I know, but he has produced a truly hilarious and withering critique of the team’s campaign to defend it. There’s also the right knee of poor Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, which had to undergo its second reconstructive surgery (he’s only 23) after Mike Shanahan tasked him with playing on a sloppy field in the first round of the playoffs, over a doctor’s orders. For good measure, the other sideline featured Riley Cooper, the wide receiver who used a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert, just in case the ESPN booth felt itself inclined toward discursiveness on the ravages of jock culture. I worried about how Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico would handle all of this.
But then came new Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s offense (and an ultimately thrilling game). Kelly had wowed all kinds of football dorks with his whizzing, attacking offense in his years coaching the Oregon Ducks. But some worried that the NFL — and its stiffer competition — might neuter it. Yeah, right. He ran 18 plays in the first 5 min. 45 sec. The Eagles had 320 yards by halftime. What a show. Twenty-five of those yards, and six of the Eagles’ points, came on a touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson, the temperamental wideout. The play was one Kelly never ran at Oregon, a deep pass where the fullback motioned across the formation. It worked perfectly; Jackson found himself alone in the end zone. Gruden illustrated it for the audience, whooping and hollering like a proud father. He soon explained why: “Chip Kelly came down to my office, and he says, ‘Hey, what’s that play the Saints run — they bring a fullback across, they fake the ball over here, and they run a post with a deep cross?’ I said, ‘Eh, I think it’s 97 Fist.’ He says, ‘Let’s put that in.’” Yes, ESPN’s hopelessly in bed with the NFL. But it might just be the best place for football too.