NFL Halftime Report
Telling ourselves stories is how we make sense of a meaningless world. And nothing begs for an explanatory narrative like regression to the mean. Why are the Oakland Raiders better than they were last year? Mostly because it would have been hard for them to get worse. I'm perfectly happy to see Jason Campbell getting credit for the bounce, and for not being JaMarcus Russell. I've had a soft spot for Campbell ever since he was in Washington; his quest to develop into a decent NFL quarterback ended up so crosswise to the team's various agendas that, by some perverse chain of enemy-of-my-enemy/schadenfreude logic, whenever he did have a good game, it made his team and its fickle, stunted boy-owner look bad. Now Al Davis—who looks reserved and judicious next to Daniel Snyder—has anointed Campbell the Raiders' starting quarterback over Bruce Gradkowski, whom coach Tom Cable had anointed the starter after benching Campbell at halftime of Week 2. (Seriously, this is less undermining and drama than Campbell went through in Washington.) Campbell got off the bench again in Week 5, when Gradkowski went out with a shoulder injury. That's one striking feature of these quarterback controversies—how is it a controversy if you only have one healthy quarterback at a time? The Eagles don't have a quarterback controversy: Michael Vick took over when Kevin Kolb got a concussion against Green Bay; Kolb took over when Vick got his thorax crushed against Washington. Now Vick is starting again because he's played better, but probably also because the Eagles are less scared of re-injuring his rib cartilage than of re-injuring Kolb's brain. Everyone would rather talk about the ups and downs of quarterbacks as if the only thing that decided these questions were merit—everyone but Mike Shanahan, anyway, who tried to blame his decision to go with Rex Grossman in crunch time on Donovan McNabb's sore hamstrings. But he only went with that after his original technocratic appeal to Grossman's superior competence in executing the two-minute drill got hooted down. Josh asked if our concern about injuries is sincere or rhetorical. I'm afraid it's a little of both—we turn our sincerity into rhetoric, on our way back to denial. A couple of readers took issue in the comments with my assertion that what happened to Austin Collie was brutal. It was a "clean hit," one argued. Yes, it was. And Collie was brutalized by it. Stefan noted that the Philly fans were booing as Collie lay injured on the field. It could have been worse. They could have been cheering, as they did when Michael Irvin went down. I'm not sure their booing was less appalling than the usual ritual of assuming an attitude of collective dismay and holding it for five or 10 or 20 minutes—however long it takes to get the damaged body out of the way so everyone else can get back to playing. Especially when the injured player manages a little wave on the way out, that little gesture of absolution and benediction: I can still move one part of my body! Farewell, and worry for me no more! So the Eagles fans were honest. It was a crap call and they were angry about it. Till the day comes that the game-story headline is "Austin Collie Injured" and you have to read down to the end to find out which team scored more points, it's hard to really fault them for sticking to their priorities.
And lest it sound like I'm glued to the saddle of my high horse, I'm going to climb down now and say that I was flabbergasted by the second illustration in the "Illegal Hits" section of the league's player policy manual —the one showing "Player in the Act of or Just After Throwing a Pass." The league tried to confuse the issue by showing No. 35 maybe kind of busting No. 17 in the mouth with his shoulder. (The defender seems to have an extra shoulder pad growing out of his shoulder pad.) But the picture is not meant to tell players it's wrong to hit people in the face. It's meant to tell them not to rough the passer. As far as I'm concerned, the picture shows exactly what a defensive player is supposed to do to the quarterback. It's like a freeze-frame of my favorite moments from the Buddy Ryan era. When a quarterback drops back to pass, he is taking a risk. I don't see a victim in this picture. I see a guy who gambled and lost. He is going to hit the ground, hard, and that ball he was trying to pass is going to go sailing who-knows-where. Havoc is being wrought. The NFL has been legislating this play out of existence for years now. I think the Tuck rule game was when it was mortally wounded. Tom Brady didn't protect himself, the Raiders came at him, and Brady got nailed on a textbook blind-side sack-and-fumble. Except it wasn't, because some ridiculous rule said that a fumble wasn't a fumble, that if a quarterback tried to pass and changed his mind, that created a mystical safe space where he couldn't be responsible for losing the ball. Before, it was physics. The defender got a shot at the quarterback. If he got there fast, the prize was a sack, maybe with a fumble. A beat slower, and the prize was a wobbling duck, maybe a pop-up interception. A beat slower than that, and the defender still got to put the quarterback on the ground, give him something to remember him by. Only if he came in still another beat slower was it roughing the passer. Now it's metaphysics. The quarterback is "defenseless," because he is focused on throwing the ball. The act of throwing a football (or of deciding not to throw a football, or now of catching a thrown football) exists on a plane parallel to but outside of normal football, a plane where nobody is allowed to hit anybody—a dimension formerly reserved for punters who had already punted, and other similarly irrelevant characters. Not for the players who were actively trying to advance the ball."They should just put a skirt on the quarterback," Jack Lambert said in disgust, long ago, about much milder protections. When we hear these things from a Lambert or a James Harrison, it's natural to hear it as the voice of a big man annoyed that he can't hurt a smaller man. I have no sympathy for the players who are looking for a spot to injure somebody. Tony Siragusa grinding his bulk on top of a player half his size was nothing to be proud of. Yet defensive players aren't wrong to feel like the quarterback is getting away with something. The forward pass was not a particularly sportsmanlike invention when it first appeared. Defenders can only chase the ball as fast as their feet will carry them, but the quarterback can send the ball from one place to another much faster than that. The modern precision-passing game is designed to exploit that imbalance over and over again. The defenders can't be everywhere at once, and now the league says that even if they do put themselves in the right place, they can't hit the person who's throwing or catching. I'd be frustrated, too. Maybe the NFL should give the defense a 12th player, to make up for it. Call him a "safety safety." The safety safety would wear a big soft-foam helmet and soft pads, and he would be stationed 30 yards behind the play. If an offensive player got past the regular defense, the safety safety could stop him with a two-hand touch.