Watching football is a complicated pleasure, one distinctly tinged with discomfort, even guilt. You can’t watch James Harrison, the Steelers linebacker, head-butt Browns quarterback Colt McCoy to the ground—after McCoy had already released the ball, rendering the tackle not only unnecessarily violent, but also tactically meaningless—without feeling a little sick inside.
Or at least that was what I thought before I read the comments on that YouTube video: “A real QB knows he’s supposed to slide in these types of situations. He deserved that beheading,” was user SwaggedUpSince1994’s trenchant commentary. Because, yes, you should pay for a bad decision made in a game with your life. Harrison was called for roughing the passer, and under the NFL’s new, more stringent tackling guidelines, the helmet-to-helmet contact resulted in a one-game suspension. McCoy was cleared to return to the game, and did, though he does not remember anything after the hit (certainly not the first quarterback to successfully complete passes he will later be unable to recall).
The average NFL career is about three years long. Your average football player is 28 years old when he’s forced into retirement. He has no marketable skills, his knees are shot, and his brain is probably damaged, and the thing he’s been doing his whole life, the thing that gives his life meaning and value, the thing he’s been told he can do better than anyone else—well, he can’t do that thing anymore. That part of his life is over; what is he going to do now? Within two years of retirement 78 percent of NFL players are in bankruptcy or close to it.
I watched the television show Friday Night Lights, and I believed in Coach Taylor as a molder of men. But in Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights, on which the show is very loosely based, the Permian Panthers don’t even make it to state. The team that does win state, the Dallas Carter Cowboys, is stripped of the title due to accusations that teachers changed players’ grades in order to guarantee their eligibility. Gary Edwards, one of the Dallas Carter stars, gets a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He never matriculates; in May of his senior year, he and several other players commit armed robbery and he is sentenced to 20 years in prison.
I know all these things; most football fans do. So it’s hard to explain, even to myself, why I still watch the game, why I still enjoy it as I do. It has something to do with nostalgia—I grew up watching Monday Night Football with my grandfather, arguing over whether Brett Favre was a better quarterback than Steve Young. (He wasn’t, but I’ll make case anyway.) It has something to do with the fact that I can’t watch a spiraling football sail into double coverage and get snatched from the air, somehow, by the intended receiver, or watch tape of Barry Sanders eluding tackle after tackle without thinking of the words “grace” and “miracle.” It has something to do with the inherent majesty of watching the human body overcome its own limitations, emotional and physical. (This is also one of the reasons I love ballet.)
So I tell myself stories about football in order to watch it. (Many of these stories are about Brett Favre.) Perhaps for this reason, my knowledge of the sport is less than encyclopedic. I don’t have a vast array of stats on hand at any given time; I haven’t memorized any depth charts. But if my guilty enjoyment of football says anything at all about the sport, it’s that you don’t need those things to watch and like a game; all you need is an appreciation for narrative and a willingness to ignore certain facts and almost all of the noise that surrounds the actual NFL. And with that, some picks for this weekend’s Wildcard Playoffs!
Bengals at Texans: Because I started watching football at a very young age, I tend to remember teams as they were when I was a child, which means that to me, the Bengals will always be terrible—during my childhood and adolescence, they went 14 straight seasons without breaking .500—and the Texans do not exist. Nevertheless, here they are in the playoffs, both competing for the underdog slot. The Bengals, who went 4-12 last season and lost their quarterback (he asked to be traded), are now starting a rookie, Andy Dalton, whose major misfortune is sharing a rookie year with Cam Newton. The Texans are currently starting their third-string QB (TJ Yates, also a rookie), after injuries to both starter Matt Schaub and his backup, Matt Leinart (Yates was injured in the last game of the regular season but has been cleared to start, avoiding a scenario in which they would have to start their fourth-string, Jake Delhomme, who is 36 and in the very depressing part of his career). Of the two football teams that play in Texas, Houston is obviously the less objectionable, and while it would be kind of adorable if a third-string rookie led his team to a playoff victory, I like the Bengals here. Dalton’s going to lose the Rookie of Year Award; he deserves a playoff victory to take the edge off.
Lions at Saints: It’s easy to love the Saints: they won the Super Bowl; they traded Reggie Bush; and for a really long time they were just terrible—one of my formative football memories involves watching Mike Ditka, during his three disastrous years as head coach, scream obscenities in a blinding rain-storm as his team was routed. But while the Saints aren’t the underdogs anymore, the sympathetic feelings one reserves for an underdog team have lingered since their Super Bowl season. (Also, full disclosure: As a die-hard Brett Favre apologist, I may still be a little sad about the outcome of the 2009 NFC Conference Championship.) Conventional wisdom (and history; the Lions love to disappoint) says the Lions aren’t going to win—if they can’t contain Aaron Rodgers’s backup, what are they going to do about Drew Brees?—but I say root for them anyway. Three years after the worst season in NFL history—the 2008 Lions are the only team to ever go 0-16—they’re in the playoffs, armed with a sharp QB (the 23-year-old Matthew Stafford, who this year joined Dan Marino and Drew Brees as the only QBs in history to throw for 5,000 yards and 40 TDs in a single season) who hasn’t, to my knowledge, sexually assaulted anyone. Besides, Detroit needs this win, maybe as badly as New Orleans once did. Add safety Louis Delmas to the mix—who has been out since Thanksgiving—and I’d say the Lions might almost have a chance at winning this one, if only they weren’t the Lions.
Giants at Falcons: I don’t like either of the Manning brothers. Maybe it’s because I think Peyton plays a particularly joyless kind of football, despite his reliance on the no-huddle, which should be thrilling. Maybe it’s because I think this glowing profile shows Eli to be kind of a jerk. Maybe it’s because I recoil at the inherent elitism of football dynasties. Honestly, it probably has a lot to do with the Giants beating the Packers in Brett Favre’s last season with that team, setting off a chain reaction of retirings and un-retirings and weepy press conferences that even I struggle to explain away. In any case, I don’t like the Giants. The Falcons have a QB with a really dumb nickname (Matty Ice? Really?) and a low turnover percentage; they’ve also got a solid running game, especially with Michael Turner (previously out with a groin injury) listed as probable for the game on Sunday. The Falcons will probably win and then lose in the next round to the well-rested Packers at Lambeau, and Eli Manning will continue to wonder why he decided to pursue a career as an NFL quarterback when his older brother had that one pretty much down.
Steelers at Broncos: The Steelers should be an easy team to love; they’re family-owned and their fans are devout in a way that suggests the pride of a small town, down on its luck. There are some problems though: James Harrison, for one; and, of course, “Big Ben” Roethlisberger. Here’s a narrative that went horribly wrong: Sheltered, driven, socially awkward, immensely talented football player wins the Super Bowl and becomes a crude, under-tipping, egotistical prick. It’s not that I don’t believe in second chances, it’s that I think a four-game suspension and one public statement of contrition followed by marriage to a girl from small-town Pennsylvania are not equivalent to growing and changing. I think the reason he’s been forgiven and re-embraced by the Rooneys and by Pittsburgh after two accusations of sexual assault is that he still wins games. Or at least he used to; Big Ben is literally limping into the post-season after an injury to his left ankle on Dec. 8. Still, barring some kind of divine intervention, I can’t see the Broncos overcoming the Steelers’ top-ranked defense. They’re leading the league in fumbles, and Tim Tebow, despite some impressive come-from-behind victories (six in his first 11 starts), still has a bad case of Brett Favre arm, which is to say: He throws a lot of interceptions. (One article pretty humorously described this problem as a “lack of conventional ability” nevertheless “overcome by his sheer will to win.” That’s one way to describe his seven fumbles this season, and the fact that he has gone as long as an entire half without successfully completing a pass, which, yes, Favre has also done.) Would I prefer to live in a world where, if you are raped and impregnated, you can get an abortion? Yes. But I’d also rather not have to root for the rapist. Let’s hope the Broncos win, if only so we can all avoid seeing Ben Roethlisberger’s meaty face on national television next week.