NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

The Problem With an 18-Game Season and a College Football Playoff
The stadium scene.
Jan. 11 2011 5:52 PM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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LaMichael James #21 of the Oregon Ducks.
LaMichael James of Oregon

First, I want to pause to savor the moment last night when we learned that God had stolen Cam Newton's heart and written his name on it. With victory confetti stuck to his face, the Heisman-winning national-champion quarterback gave praise to the Lord for the result. All that noise, and he was Tim Tebow all along.

I love the idea of the college superstar Newton as a sort of Mr. Magoo, innocently seeing nothing but the football and the grass as he ambled his way from one program to another, past plummeting bags of money and along the teetering beam of eligibility, strolling blithely along the tabletop, unaware of any money or favors frantically changing hands beneath. I hope it's true. There were already enough breaks for in-game replay review—Touchdown! No touchdown!—without anyone adding a whole postseason judicial investigation to determine who really won.

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Besides, old-fashioned SEC backroom hijinks seem appealing next to the straightforward and unapologetic corruptness of the Oregon program, where the unpaid young adults are risking their bodies for the sake of cross-promoting Nike products. "The billboards, all the great Nike ideas, were really part of a process of building a national and international brand," the Oregon athletic director said.

So there were the Ducks, with wing-images on their shoulders, gray metallic helmets, and glowing yellow-green shoes and accents, looking like lime Gatorade sloshing in a brushed-steel bedpan. Oregon and/or Nike says the players guide the design—all the more reason, with all due respect to Nate, not to let the athletes' fashion sensibilities run any part of the show. Football players have terrible taste. Have a look at the Ravens, whose player-friendly desire to be sartorially up-to-date has them wearing stripeless black pants on the road with black-topped white socks, for a leotard-tights effect. Throw in their taste for eye black-as-warpaint and you have a football team that looks like a Juggalo mime troupe.

And for all OregoNike's efforts, the Ducks still haven't come up with an outfit more ridiculously ugly than what the Seahawks wear all the time. It's true: Outstanding college achievement is mere mediocrity in the pros.

In the actual football-playing department, Oregon got a taste of that last night as Auburn's Nick Fairley kept blasting through the line into their backfield before their fancy side-to-side speed offense could start moving. Most college players are out there either for size or for speed. The ones bound for the NFL, like Fairley, aren't trading off one for the other.

Stefan is right that the spectacle of a larger-than-life player taking over the game helps make college football exciting. It's even more breathtaking when the rare pro player—Bo Jackson, the young Randy Moss—comes along who can dominate an NFL game. Unfortunately, this past weekend demonstrated another reason, besides the more equal distribution of talent, why individual heroics play less of a role in the pros: attrition.

Take the Packers-Eagles game again. The Packers were the deeper, steadier, more balanced team. The Eagles' hopes rested on the chance that a few standout players on offense could make up for that. But DeSean Jackson—he of the league-leading yards-per-catch average and the game-winning punt return—missed a big chunk of the game with a knee injury. And Michael Vick was too gimpy, after carrying the Eagles' offense down the regular-season stretch, to put on another one-man show.

Adding two more games to the season, as the league seems hell-bent on doing, means that much more wear and tear on the players. And that means, aside from the question of accumulated human pain and damage, that the ones who do make the playoffs will be a little more tired, a little slower-footed, a little less likely to make something transcendent happen.

The people who crusade for More Football, whether it's the 18-game NFL season or an NCAA playoff system, never seem to acknowledge that the body can provide only so much football before you get diminishing returns. Bo Jackson had already had the Bo Jackson-ness knocked out of him before his final, career-wrecking hip injury. Even if the college kids are the ones having more fun, it seems criminal to have them risk a pro payday for two or three extra rounds of, cough, amateur ball. Will Cam Newton take his talents to the NFL? The first place he took his talents after the title game was to the X-ray room, to try to find out how badly he'd wrecked his lower back. If there were a great, clamored-for college playoff, it might have finished him off entirely.

The pro game tries to make the individual human element as irrelevant as possible. Systems! Packages! (Rex Grossman?) As great as Cam Newton's Tebow turn was, it paled next to the hilariousness of Bill Belichick declaring that, in his capacity as the Patriots' head coach, he won't be "making any blocks, or tackles, or runs, throws or catches." Hey, I just let my players play. Wait till people figure out that Danny Woodhead's brain is perforated by implanted electrified stimulator-needles, and he's actually been operated all year by an assistant coach hiding under a tarp with a wireless Xbox controller. (Hold down the left trigger for a scrappiness boost.) Spygate was just the tip of the iceberg, people.

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