Friday, November 25, 2011

Shoot The Generals

Sam Spence--"The Equalizer" (mp3)

The Battle of New Orleans is one of the more interesting battles in American history. Beyond the obvious reasons (Andrew Jackson threw together a ragtag army of irregulars, pirates, and Indians, the battle was fought after the war was over due to a delay in communications, the victory made Jackson a presidential shoo-in a few years later, etc.) are the strategical issues. The British approach required them to march through swamps. The British split their forces to attempt a kind of pincer attack.

But most important, and most relevant to my purposes here, is the fact that Jackson's men shot almost all of the British officers as they marched into battle, leaving the soldiers in complete disarray and primed for the routing they received. Remember also that, at the time, these were the finest soldiers in the world. Fresh from the Napoleonic Wars, the British soldiers who marched toward New Orleans were experienced, battle-seasoned, and used to winning.

Such was not the case in Chalmette, outside New Orleans. Which takes me to the current crisis in the NFL.

Now, you may not think that a post about football is your cup of tea, but please realize that a game this large, this central to the American psyche, has things to tell us about who we are. And, if the NFL is any indication, we are an army without generals, or at least not enough good ones.

As I write this, some 19 of the 32 NFL teams have lost their starting quarterbacks for some or all of the season. A solid 50+% of the field generals in what is arguably America's most popular sport (certainly when you consider overall awareness, all sources of revenue, the full extent of television coverage, etc. this is so) are not or have not been on the field for significant parts of the season. While cases like Peyton Manning's are well-document and, I would argue, cast a pall over the entire start of the NFL season, just in the last two weeks, Matt Schaub and Jay Cutler, quarterbacks on two teams with strong reason to think that they could do some damage in the playoff, have gone down to regular season ending injuries. They are the latest, perhaps with the greatest implications.

While we all know that one player does not a team make, these are pretty important members of their respective teams, among the highest paid, if not the highest paid, players on their teams. Or, put differently, they are among the elite players that fans of their respective teams pay a lot of money to spend a Sunday watching. Their highly-skilled coaching staffs determined that these men leading their teams gave their teams their best chance to win.

And now they are not playing. This is not to minimize the rampant injuries at every other position as well. NFL teams in 2011 and for some years have been fighting a war of attrition. Whoever can cobble together the most coherent has the best chance of making it to the end. Yeah, skill's got something to do with it, but if you aren't playing, your skill level doesn't matter all that much.

If I were an NFL owner or part of management, I would be terrified. Because I would look at the game I work for and, arguably, love and not see any immediate solution. I would chart out the rest of the season and see its outcome decided by injury more than skill. I would see an organization's success dependent largely on its staff's ability not to coach the players it has but the fill the gaps created by the ones who are gone.

In the short term, this can be exciting. The unheralded quarterback who seems to come from nowhere to lead his team to victory is one of the great storylines in sports. The player who was cut and is now working selling real estate before getting the phone call out of nowhere that brings him back to the NFL is the second chance that few of us get.

But don't you think that at some point, and probably sooner rather than later, fans are going to start losing enthusiasm for their teams if those teams do not include their favorite players. I've experienced it personally this year, though not at the NFL level. The starting quarterbacks on both my local college team and my "elite" college team went down with multi-game injuries, effectively gutting their teams chances for D-III playoffs or a decent D-I bowl game. It's not that I have to have a super-victorious team to root for, but I do lose interest when my teams go from competitive to inept or one-dimensional overnight.

I don't have a solution. I don't necessarily blame the players who get fined from time to time for high-profile hits. If anything, I blame the size and speed of the game. Men that large and able to hit that hard should probably not be able to run that fast. It's a deadly combination. But it's what the game has become and I'm not aware of anyone putting limits on size or working too hard to find out how players are getting that big and strong and fast.

No, I'm afraid we love it too much to push too hard to call those issues into question. But maybe it's time. Being a participant of Fantasy Football for many years, I've been all too aware of the number of injuries and how they can undermine one's "team." But this year feels different. Maybe it's because Peyton is gone. Maybe it's because one night last weekend I sat with my brother and his wife and cheered for the Bears and for a quarterback who was maybe finally coming into his own. Until he broke his thumb and was finished for the season. Maybe it's because any fan who enjoys seeing his or her team develop a rhythm sees that rhythm shot to hell with a crucial injury.

Somebody's going to win this thing, and they're going to feel good about it. But I fear that it will be a pyrrhic victory, especially if the last man standing is someone nobody particularly likes or some team whose Super Bowl victory doesn't feel deserved. If Aaron Rogers goes down and his perfect season is ruined by an injury, it will hurt the game. Maybe people will wonder a little more about the game they love. Or maybe not. Maybe they'll just move on to the next quarterback du jour.

I do know that if Andrew Jackson were around and some team hired him as a defensive coordinator, this would be his strategy for team defense: shoot the generals. But then, he was trying to win the battle. The war was already over.


Billy said...

You are not overstating the value of a QB. The Colts are, at worst, 6-5 if Manning plays.

The Green Bay Packers, utterly decimated last year by injuries (not literally, but almost), would never have made the Wild Card, much less won a Super Bowl without Rogers. With him, they could lose one player after another and still be in the hunt.

Even the amazing Bill Belichick, who managed an 11-5 season without Brady, failed to make the playoffs.

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

And just imagine if Goodell had gotten his wish for an eighteen-game season.