Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taking Away The Shine

It’s getting more difficult literally by the moment to remain a fan of the NFL.  The league is in a clear free fall and seems almost like it is making things up on the fly. If a league ever needed a war time consigliore it is now.  Tom Hagen, where for art thou?
What’s frustrating about all of this is that for at least fans in Cleveland it’s taken a bit of a shine of its first home opener win since the Truman administration.  Which is too bad because if there is anything much to like about a bad team in a good city it’s the over-the-top euphoria felt when the team wins a game it’s supposed to lose.  The sun shines, the birds sing, and every coach and player is the best we’ve ever had.
That would pretty much sum up fan reaction to the Browns unlikely win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday if the league wasn’t so dysfunctional at the moment.  Indeed I’m not really sure how appropriate it is to even discuss the Browns’ win except as an afterthought.
The blame for this falls squarely once again on Commission Roger Goodell.  I was pretty certain for a great number of years that Bud Selig was the worse commissioner in the history of organized sports.  But at the moment Goodell is making Selig look like David Stern by comparison.  Goodell is Nero, fiddling as the league burns.  Other than a handpicked interview he conducted with CBS News and then botched anyway, Goodell has been in hiding managing the crises he’s creating by his own dithering.
To get a true measure of Goodell’s incompetence all you need to know is that he so mishandled the Ray Rice situation that most observers now have been grudgingly forced to sympathize with Rice, not for his deeds but for the simple fact that he’s now been punished twice for the same offense.  The legal concept of double jeopardy doesn’t technically apply to a private entity like the NFL but that’s beside the point.  It doesn’t feel right when someone is punished twice for the same offense if no new facts have emerged between punishments.
But it’s not just the Rice situation.  Goodell’s complete inability to manage a crisis has allowed teams to flounder about as they manipulate their own morals to justify why their best players shouldn’t be punished for offenses they’ve clearly committed. 
Adrian Peterson’s name is now as notorious as Rice’s thanks to Peterson’s rather candid admission and attitude toward how one may properly punish a 4 year old child.  The Minnesota Vikings at first deactivated Peterson and there he should have remained.  Yet he didn’t for a number of reasons.  He’s the Vikings best player was one.  The league couldn’t figure out what more to do was another.  After reinstating him and then looking like fools for doing so, the Vikings again essentially deactivated him.
In Carolina, they were essentially shamed into doing something similar with Greg Hardy, who actually has been convicted of domestic violence and yet, strangely, remains unpunished by league.  He may not be active for the games but he is getting paid.  In San Francisco, where the owner and the head coach know no shame, let Ray McDonald play on.
All this is going on while Goodell remains holed up and lawyered up.  A cabal of idiots describes them best.
Every league is going to go through these moments.  Baseball has had at least two of them, both around widespread illegal drug use and survived.  The NFL, too, will survive this mess one way or another.  The game itself is simply too popular.  What is most fascinating though is that the league, a multi billion dollar enterprise with virtually every resource at its disposal, can’t manage a crisis.
I won’t pretend that these issues aren’t complicated.  We do live in a just society and we do want to see people accused of crimes be treated fairly.  But the issues also aren’t nearly as complicated as the NFL is making them out to be, either.
Rice was an easy call at the outset that Goodell proved incapable of handling.  It’s actually hard to fathom how anyone seeing just the first video would still only assess a two game suspension.  The Hardy call is just as easy.  He’s already been convicted and the testimony against him is damning.  The Peterson case is easy mainly because Peterson isn’t denying the conduct, just the label.  And the McDonald case isn’t difficult either given that there were plenty of teammates present who actually witnessed what took place. 
Yet it seems that the NFL wants to deal more in nuance instead of the obvious.  The crime some prosecutor decides to charge the player with isn’t the issue.  Prosecutors are politicians who do things as much for political reasons as practical ones.  The facts are what they are and it’s on those and not the actual charge on which the NFL should be making its decisions.
I’m not surprised that Goodell remains popular with the owners.  But all you need to know on that score is that one of his more vocal supporters is Dan Snyder.  And why Snyder?  Because Goodell decided that the racially offensive name of Snyder’s franchise was not a league matter but one for Snyder to decide.  It’s a mutual backscratching society which is why Goodell’s job is safe when it should be over.
When people think of the NFL these days it’s not about the games, it’s about the league itself and that is the essence of the problem.  In Cleveland, the Browns won last Sunday not because of some fluke or quirk but because they were the better team on a given day.  The fans are talking, yes, but talking much more about Rice and Hardy and Peterson than Brian Hoyer.
That’s too bad.  Right now this Browns team doesn’t stink, at least like virtually every previous iteration.  A team that averages 5.6 wins a season for the last 11 years (a number that’s actually skewed by an improbable 10-win season in 2007) is pretty much exactly what it means for a team to stink.  So right now, at 1-1, the Browns don’t stink.
And while I’m not here to throw cold water on a good win, let’s just say that we’ve seen this before. Last year’s team had a mini win streak of sorts early in the season and then regressed to the true level of its awfulness.  In fairness, in most other years no regression was needed.  The team started out bad and got worse.
Still, there was much to like about Sunday’s win but perhaps the biggest takeaway was its ability to carry over a relatively high level of play from one week to the next.  True the Browns looked like the 2012 Browns in the first half of the Steelers game two weeks ago.  But the second half was more productive and energetic even if it fell short.  To watch that productivity and energy get carried over was indeed rare in these parts.
It’s still too early to offer a fair assessment of head coach Mike Pettine and maybe, as owner Jimmy Haslam said in a flash of exuberance after Sunday’s win that the team got the right coach (a feeling he likely uttered last season about Rob Chudzinski as well as the Browns, under Brian Hoyer, won 3 straight early last season), let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Pettine does seem different.  He isn’t the wet blanket that was Pat Shurmur or the little dictator that was Eric Mangini or even the genial but befuddled grandfather that was Romeo Crennel.  He’s pretty much a square-jawed, look you in the eye kind of guy, akin in temperament to former head coach Marty Schottenheimer but without the soaring clichés and flowing tears.
What is going to take time is to assess whether Pettine truly has the make-up of a successful head coach.  A head coach sets the tone and in that regard Pettine has done a good job thus far.  But two games into the season where expectations were low anyway isn’t exactly trial by fire.  The measure of Pettine and hence this team will come in a million smaller ways but will boil down to his ability to keep this team together and competitive if/when the season, like virtually all others, starts circling the drain.
Soon, hopefully, fans can have exactly these kinds of discussions.  That’s what football is supposed to be about.  As long as Goodell remains in charge, as long as he continues to garner support from the owners with their own foibles to hide, the NFL will be less about the games and more about “the league.”  It’s not the welcome distraction that any one wants.

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