Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I'm so bored with the N.F.L.

It used to be that the NFL was my sport of choice. Every Sunday I would awake jonesing for the bombastic music and snazzy computer-graphics intro of the NFL on CBS, featuring Brent Musburger and Jimmy the Greek. Although the team of choice was initially the Oakland Raiders and then the San Francisco 49ers (my father going so far as to throw away my cherished plastic Oakland Raiders helmet, as if by destroying it he could throw some sympathetic death magick at Al Davis, which would never work because dude is a necromancer himself), it was the game itself that fascinated me.

I vividly remember creating fictional leagues with teams created out of whole cloth, right down to the helmet designs and team names that would have given sociologists a giant erection (two well-known rivals: the Olmecs and the Toltecs). Later, this carried over to an infatuation with an obscure piece of software called Playmaker Football, where it was up to the player to design plays and then decide what plays would be called when through an overly-confusing control panel, resulting in games played between two different playbooks, arbitrated by a third party.

As I grew older, football and the NFL slipped further from my conciousness. I began to follow soccer as my "primary" and only occasionally attempted to give the NFL my attention, including an ill-fated attempt to introduce a friend to the concept of the Super Bowl, which of course resulted in a group of us watching the Giants play the Ravens while he asked us whether this was fun and he just wasn't getting it.

I've tried to open back to the NFL. The culmination of this was the year that I ordered the Sunday Ticket package. Each Sunday was slow torture, with me switching between game after game, each click driving me further into depression because I knew that even though the games were incredibly boring and I'd rather be watching soccer or doing something other than watching TV, I had to watch because if I didn't, I would be wasting my money.

When the league introduced rule changes in order to promote parity between all the teams, they succeeded in creating a sports league where every team is only a year or two away from possible success and where a division doormat could have legitimate designs on making the Super Bowl within the near future. They also suceeded in creating a league where because, of the nature of the new rules, caution rules. The game, in general, is no longer about dominating your opponents, about forcing your will upon them. The emphasis is no longer on winning the game; it is on playing not to lose. Damage control takes precedence over dealing damage.

The playoffs are the area that has taken the largest hit. It used to be that the playoffs were an epic landscape, where teams who could be legitimately compared to the greatest teams of times past exerted themselves in godlike struggles, planting their flag on the body of their enemy. Now, since every team is closer to all the others, the playoffs are a passive-aggressive shell of their former self, creating games that are all vaguely different distortions of that one Giants-Ravens encounter.

Competitiveness in the postseason has been sacrificed for competitiveness in the regular season and in the arena of team building. Trent Dilfer was mocked for his status as Super Bowl-winning QB; now he has the last laugh as his archetype dominates the position.

There was a discussion on Free Darko that led to a mentioning of the NBA's current trend of loss of positions, something that occured in soccer over two decades ago with the Total Football of the great Netherlands sides of the early 70s. It seems like parity has brought up a situation analogous to soccer's catenaccio, the ultra-defensive strategy championed by Helenio Herrara that dominated soccer during the 80s and early 90s. In football, where the team is split into offensive and defensive squads, it's not that the team somehow "concentrates" on the defense, it's that the emphasis on not-losing creates a situation where the defense becomes the actor and the offense the reactor, which previously only occured when a defense was extremely talented/not-yet-comprehended.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the new NFL is that teams are less defined by their style of play. I'm not talking about gimmick offenses or unique schemes, rather, the way that the great teams of old seemed to have a common thread defining their actions, that the Cowboys, Steelers, Raiders, Redskins, 49ers, Giants, Packers, etc. had their own aesthetic, unit-based personalities that are becoming a distant dream.

POSTSCRIPT: It would be foolhardy to make a NFL post today without noting the passing of Lamar Hunt. Aside from being probably the best thing to happen to the sport of soccer in this country, Mr. Hunt was part of the group of owners that pushed the NFL to its current success and I can only wonder what he thought of the direction the league has been taking recently. He was one of the free-thinkers of sports ownership and will be missed. RIP.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Halftime from Chelsea-Arsenal

Firstly, congratulations are due to Chelsea and to their coach, Jose Mourinho, in particular. Even during Manchester United's heyday of dominating the EPL, they never reached the heights that Chelsea have achieved thus far. All you need to do is watch a single half of one of their games to realize that they have built the finest team to hate in decades, possibly since Bremner's Leeds side.

It all starts from the top. There's nothing like a manager who refers to himself as "The Special One", whose default expressions are either "smug" or "petulant" and is known for over-the-top celebrations and remonstrations, depending on which aforementioned mood is in style. Today has already had an excellent Mourinho Moment, consisting of him strutting out of the coach's box, through Wenger's box and 10 yards down the sideline so that he could yell at the ref about Ashley Cole receiving a yellow card for a tackle that was well, a yellow-card offense.

Of course, I don't know if the match official heard what The Special One had to say because he was surrounded by a scrum of Chelsea players, all bleating at the top of their lungs about perceived injustices. And really, this is the basis for Chelsea's villany. They're a bunch of whiners. They complain about everything that goes against them and even when they feel like things haven't gone good enough. The addition of Ashley Cole to a squad that already has Drogba, Lampard, Carvalho, Makalele and Ballack is a masterstroke, a move that nudges the squad further in the direction of the Whiner's Tabernacle Choir, a force to be reckoned with in the world of wheedling and generally being a complete ass.

Seriously, it's a pity that the churlishness of Chelsea takes away from what is a superlative team. Mourinho is the top tactical manager in the EPL currently, as evidenced by his move to play Essien as right wing-back to take advantage of Giggs pushing inside in the game against Man U at Old Trafford, a move that was the fulcrum of Chelsea's domination of the second half and one that Alex Ferguson never countered. Drogba, for all of his diving and gesticulations, may be the best player in the world right now, a brutal combination of skills, pace and strength. In fact, the latter is an impressive attribute across the board at Chelsea, with Arsenal thus far looking like the kid who gets sand kicked in his face in the old Charles Atlas ads.

Anyhow, got to get back to the hating. Maybe Chelsea'll bring Robben in and he can whine about losing his hair.