NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

The Idiocy of Blaming Rashard Mendenhall for Pittsburgh's Loss
The stadium scene.
Feb. 7 2011 3:36 PM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Rashart Mendenhall. Click image to expand.
Rashard Mendenhall 

Tom, I had Troy Aikman's Super Bowl XLV Greatest Hits queued up on the turntable—I grew up in the Super Bowl Blowout Era, too—but you dropped the needle before I could get there. So before moving on, let's put a cap on our Aikman-bashing and your Concussion Bowl coinage. Whether watching on a 42-inch flat screen in a cold basement, as I did, or on a 2,326-inch one inside Jerry Jones's climate-controlled football palace, the game appeared free of obvious brain injuries. (For some players, of course, the dozens of unobvious ones will be tallied when the One Great Scorer comes to write against their names.)

Aikman certainly lived up to his word to keep his mouth shut on the subject of concussions. In the first quarter, his boothmate, the soporific Joe Buck, actually mentioned Aaron Rodgers' brain-injury problems. The Packers quarterback immediately threw his first touchdown pass of the game, thus sparing Aikman the awkwardness of a non-reply. In the second quarter, after Ben Roethlisberger was body-slammed by the Packers lineman B.J. Raji, the camera caught the also previously concussed Pittsburgh quarterback with his helmet off looking rather dazed. "Trying to shake out the cobwebs is Roethlisberger," Buck intoned with verb-object-subject pretension. * "Reacting to mild traumatic brain injury is Roethlisberger" would have been more like it. ESPN's chatterboxes repeated the cobwebs line and, as far as I can tell, the possibility that Roethlisberger was hurt on the play was raised only by a poster on a message board for a company that makes NFL figurines. (The collarbone on Charles Woodson's action figure appears to be intact.)

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There were plenty of other shouldas and couldas, too, and not just up in the Fox booth. "Gotta make better throws than that, son," Sports Illustrated's Peter King condescendingly tsk-tsked on Twitter after an errant Roethlisberger pass in the third quarter. After the game, King wrote that Rashard Mendenhall "lost this game more than anyone." The Pittsburgh running back "got the ball punched out and lost it," after which Green Bay "scored the clinching touchdown eight plays later." A writer with King's pedigree certainly can understand that turnovers that lead to points are just as damaging in the first quarter as the fourth, and Roethlisberger's two first-half picks led directly to two Green Bay touchdowns. King also might have mentioned that Mendenhall was outstanding to that point, or perhaps included two additional words in his analysis of the play: Clay and Matthews. The Packers linebacker lowered his shoulder into precisely the right spot to dislodge the ball from Mendenhall's grasp. He was trying, too.

No matter how great the actual game—and this one was ragged but indeed great—I invariably turn off the Super Bowl feeling like I've had an out-of-body experience. I think that's because all the background noise (more than half of my sportswriter-heavy Twitter feed was about the anal sex- and racial stereotype- and boobs-and-nuts-themed commercials and the words-fail halftime show) has severely diminished the game. The field was in lousy shape to begin with, even before it was trampled by the extras dressed in glow sticks. The halftime took 28 minutes. In a stadium that normally seats 80,000, the NFL installed 15,000 temporary seats. More than 1,000 of these seats proved unusable, a disappointment no doubt for the fans who paid big money for them. (The face value of the affected seats was $800 and $900.) "I know this," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said before the game. "However many we print, people will buy."

The quotation actually comes from a cover-story profile of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in last week's SI written, naturally, by Peter King. I don't mean to harp on King; he's a nice man who once wrote nice things about my NFL book. But his story, a detailed portrayal of Goodell's family background (senator's son), career path (NFL media intern turned problem-solving right-hand man), and personality (good guy, gives second chances, sensitive but tough), is completely uncritical. In King's 24/7/365 NFL life, there seems to be little tolerance for unconventional opinion. Goodell's controversial player-conduct policy? Worked for Tank Johnson and Michael Vick—read their private texts! His media-driven punishment of hard hits and his push for an 18-game season in the face of fan and player opposition? There's one brief dissenting quotation from player rep Scott Fujita. Brain injuries? Long-term player health? Crickets. Roger Goodell is one tough sumbitch negotiator—with a heart of gold.

The NFL is Midas and Oz and Shangri La and every other stupid analogy you might want to try; we see that every year on Super Sunday. But I can't help but wonder, as the league's negotiators sit down with the legal representatives of its players, whether anyone has the ability to see it for another stupid analogy: an emperor without its clothes. Are 18 regular-season games justified for any reason other than to generate more revenue? Do you sell $200 tickets to watch the Super Bowl on a video monitor outside a stadium just because you can? Does the fact that your game is "the most important entertainment vehicle in the U.S.," as Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NFL partner NBC's sports unit, tells King, mean you can't see the difference between added economic value (revenue) and diminished perceptual value (game secondary to "brand")?

Spectacles are great; the Romans figured that out. But the NFL's biggest one seems almost ridiculous now, a modern parody of its Up With People halftime-show days. Roger Goodell would impress me by turning off Jerry Jones' microphone; refusing to screw in (or not) a few extra seats to squeeze a few thousand more bucks from his big game; playing future Super Bowls in the home stadium of one of the teams; admitting that a longer season is bad for the health of his employees; mandating dramatic rules changes (get rid of the three-point stance, the kickoff, and whatever else serious analysis deems collectively damaging); and guaranteeing at least part of the contracts of current players and making good with every ailing retired one.

Sorry to be such a downer, Nate, in the aftermath of Titletown's 13th NFL title, a triumph for small towns everywhere, one more shining example of how the most purely socialistic league in the world is also the best. I know I should smile for the cameras and repeat the words of Packers wideout Greg Jennings, spoken to Fox's Pam Oliver as the confetti gently fell around him, "It's a great day to be great, baby."

Correction, Feb. 7, 2011: This piece originally and incorrectly claimed the phrase "Trying to shake out the cobwebs is Roethlisberger" was an example of "object-subject-verb pretension." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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