An easy solution to every problem in football.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 8 2005 5:10 PM

The Lords of Discipline

Coaches and broadcasters peddle an easy solution to every problem in football.

Edwards spares the hammer. Click on image to enlarge.
Edwards spares the hammer

This past Sunday morning, New York's CBS affiliate ran a feature on the woes of the New York Jets. Players from Vinny Testaverde to Curtis Martin recited the team's problems: turnovers, mistakes early in the game, players missing practice. What will it take to revive the season? "You have to be disciplined," said coach Herman Edwards. "It's called discipline."

Sound like a familiar solution? It should. In today's NFL, bemoaning a "lack of discipline" isn't simply a part of the perfunctory hand-wringing after a string of losses. It's the diagnosis for anything and everything that goes wrong on and off the field.

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Why did Eagles coach Andy Reid have to suspend Terrell Owens? According to ESPN's Steve Young, "he has to have some discipline." Why are the Baltimore Ravens struggling this season? The AP says: "Childish Ravens lack discipline—and victories." Why was former starting safety Michael Hawthorne cut recently by St. Louis? Rams coaches say he contributed to the team's lack of discipline in the secondary. How did Vikings executives crack down on the team's alleged romping on stripper-bedecked yachts? "Lack of discipline will no longer be tolerated at any level," said owner Zygi Wilf. And why has Green Bay come up short in the playoffs recently? Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel attributes the losses, in part, to Brett Favre's "undisciplined approach."

If you can tag Favre—a guy who hasn't missed a start since 1992—as undisciplined, then you can get away with attaching the label to anything. Pre-snap penalties. Turnovers. Fourth-quarter collapses. First-quarter collapses. Buck-naked lake cruises. Ejections. It seems like everywhere you look in football, there's a problem that could be cured if somebody had a bit more self-control.

So, what's with football's discipline fetish? As countless observers have noted, the rhetoric of football borrows heavily from the rhetoric of warfare. It's no surprise, then, that the tendency to blame football mishaps on players' lack of discipline has a parallel in the military. Like their NFL counterparts, U.S. military leaders aren't afraid to play the "discipline" card. Just look at 2004's Jones-Fay report, in which Army poo-bahs attributed the malfeasance at Abu Ghraib prison to a "lack of discipline" on the part of soldiers and leaders, a "breakdown in discipline," and "the actions of a few undisciplined soldiers."

But while military observers can turn to the likes of Seymour Hersh for deeper explanations of armed-forces fiascos, football fans are stuck with the likes of Joe Buck. Today's crop of sideline reporters and booth jockeys spend more time nattering about fantasy stats than analyzing X's and O's.

Botched plays in basketball and baseball lend themselves to immediate diagnosis—mistakes tend to involve one or two players and happen right at the focal point of the action. Football's more confusing. On each play, 22 players swarm around, each carrying out duties that are largely unknown to both fans and the guys in the press box. Unlike the rest of us, play-by-play announcers and color commentators don't have the luxury of admitting their befuddlement. When a play gets fouled up for some unknown reason, it's safe to blame the screw-up on a lack of discipline. That analysis might be wrong, but at least it's irrefutable.

The evocation of discipline extends beyond the media to players and coaches. When asked by the New Orleans Times-Picayune about their frequent penalties this year, both Saints coach Jim Haslett and guard Kendyl Jacox fingered a lack of discipline as the culprit. In reality, penalties and turnovers happen for a vast number of reasons, many of which are beyond the control of the guys on the field. Refs make crappy calls. Ray Lewis causes fumbles. Wind knocks down passes. Cleats get caught in turf. Blind hands grab facemasks unseen.

When you think about it, the possible reasons for penalties and turnovers seem infinite. That's why coaches and players buy into the discipline myth. Whereas bad weather, bad calls, and bad luck are completely uncoachable, a lack of discipline can be solved. At least in theory. In practice, the term is so vague that improving a team's discipline would look like … what, exactly? Perhaps combo drills focusing on A) the finer points of a cover-two zone and B) the finer points of life without water-borne exotic dancers.

During that time of hopeful rejuvenation known as the offseason, coaches trot out their team's newly shored up discipline like a talisman to ward off the coming storms. "My discipline isn't loud," Jets coach Herman Edwards said before the start of the season. "My discipline is like the nun's discipline. It's matter-of-fact. You don't have to hit anybody in the head with a hammer. If you're not a disciplined player, you're not going to be here." As it turns out, football coaches are like nuns in another way—they put their faith in unempirical abstractions.

Felix Gillette is a reporter for the Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily.