NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

Why Football Players Choose Fashion Over Safety
The stadium scene.
Jan. 10 2011 6:48 PM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers.
Aaron Rodgers during the Green Bay Packers' victory over the Philadelphia Eagles

Oh my goodness, you guys, there is some serious coach-evisceration going on here. I understand it, though: Coaches are the easiest targets after a weekend of heavily scrutinized football games. Anyone in his right mind knows it's an empty cry to belittle a player for missing a catch or a block or a tackle—except, of course, for the ex-players who, as Stefan said, seem to have forgotten that they used to get their asses kicked on occasion, too. (Mike Mayock's career stats: two seasons, nine games played, one kick return for nine yards. Hardly perfection.)

But the coach! He must answer to the critics. He must explain why he used a timeout, why he attempted a field goal, why he called a running play. And he must calmly explain it all with a mighty rage bubbling just underneath the composure he's barely holding onto. Because he knows that it's not quite that simple, that the platform for the scrutiny is built when the game is over and everything has unfolded. Had Akers made that fourth-quarter field goal, the Eagles would have been down only two points on the last drive, and they could have attempted another field goal for the win. Andy Reid would have been praised for his game management.

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The post-game coach lashings, to me, are reactionary, grasps at some tangible moment when it all slipped away, when the game was lost for good. But the coach knows that reducing it all to one decision is bullshit, and trying to explain himself at a press conference becomes an exercise in restraint. He makes hundreds of decisions during the week and leading up to the game. It is tidy to reduce it all to a single timeout, and it perpetuates the myth that the well-informed football fan could have done it better.

I am not saying that no one who plays or coaches football deserves the criticism—I just feel we should all try to understand the variables at play here. Josh, John Carlson's short touchdown did not happen because Roman Harper sucks at football. It happened because the Seahawks offense designed and executed an effective red-zone play that took advantage of the tendencies of the Saints' defense as a whole. And it worked. Sometimes the offensive plays work, sometimes the defensive plays work, but it's never quite so black-and-white.

I would expect ex-players to understand this, but they seem to forget everything they once knew as soon as they get to the broadcast booth. Mayock has spent so much time watching film and grading players that his standards are impossibly high. He has created the perfect robot football player in his mind, and he compares fallible human players with this idealized creature. No wonder he's always disappointed.

Tsk-tsking players' mistakes isn't just unfair. It's also tedious, and a poor substitute for actual insights. Troy Aikman, who I normally like, kept berating James Jones for dropping a few balls. Yes, he dropped passes. Everyone saw it. You don't have to harp on it. Then there are the players in the studio—Trent Dilfer, for instance, threw more interceptions in his career than touchdowns yet repeatedly eviscerates quarterbacks for making poor decisions with the ball. This confuses me. I know he remembers what it feels like to fuck up, to get smashed, to throw a pick, to lose a big game. So why does he feel the need to pile on? Also, I really can't stand when an analyst tells everyone that he has "been saying this all year," regardless of the topic. He just wants everyone to know that, in this unpredictable league, he predicted it all. No you didn't, asshole! No one gets it right—that's why pro football is awesome. Just tell us what happened on the play, with the technical and psychological insight you gained while playing, and stop beating your chest.

I say all that knowing that it is exactly this melodramatic egomaniacal weirdness that attracts people to the whole package of the NFL. Sure, it can be annoying to hear these announcers bloviate. But it keeps fans entertained, and it makes them believe, at the very core of their soul, that they could have made that field goal—right, Stefan? (Damn kicker!)

The best thing that happened to the league this weekend was the Seahawks beating the Saints. They had a 7-9 record, somehow won their division, and then whooped the Super Bowl champions. All of this after weeks of debate about whether the playoffs should be reformatted to account for teams with less-than-awesome records. I think the result of the game makes that argument look dumb. The Seahawks were obviously the better team this weekend, and their victory shows that a team's record, especially in the playoffs, doesn't mean anything. They won their division, they should host a playoff game. That is the carrot for every team in the NFL. Every coach talks about winning the division—win and you're in. Changing that format for a situation that almost never happens in order to appease a two-week long semi-argument would be a huge overreaction.

As to your question about helmets, Stefan, the players use the helmets that feel the best on their heads. There are two kinds of helmets readily available to players. One is the standard model they've been using for years, manufactured by Riddell. The other is a lighter model, designed by Schutt, that has a slightly different shape. A few of my teammates with concussion histories were urged to try out Schutt helmets, which, we were told, were safer for the brain. (The twice-concussed Aaron Rodgers wore one recently and was mocked by his teammates for its strange shape.) I don't know enough about helmet safety to say anything with confidence, but to me, the lighter-weight Schutt helmet felt less safe—when you're used to wearing something for your whole career, everything else seems abnormal.

Football equipment, for players, is more about comfort than safety. That's why you see lots of guys who don't wear thigh pads or knee pads. No one in the NFL wears hip pads or butt pads, either. All of these are requirements in college and high school. Shoulder pads can be cumbersome, too, so players get the smallest pads they can get away with based on their position. More pads mean more surface area for opponents to grab and less arm mobility, and it looks way less cool. Football players care a lot about how they look in their uniforms. Players line up in front of the mirror before games to make sure everything looks just right. Seriously. I did, too.

Helmets are no different. The "safer" ones look weird. And there is no evidence, at least to the players, that either style is going to make a bit of difference if you get smashed at the right angle. After all, there is a warning right there on the helmet. It reads, in all caps: "NO HELMET CAN PREVENT SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES A PLAYER MIGHT RECEIVE WHILE PARTICIPATING IN FOOTBALL." That's right, no helmet. The risk is not a secret. If you're going to get concussed, might as well look good doing it.

What do you think, Josh? Which helmet would you prefer?

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Nate Jackson is the author of Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile. He played in the NFL for six seasons.