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Articles on this Page
- 09/26/16--09:47: _Not even Les Miles ...
- 10/03/16--11:13: _All those Washingto...
- 10/11/16--11:00: _Brady Hoke's former...
- 10/18/16--12:53: _Ranking college foo...
- 10/25/16--06:32: _UCF’s in my top 10 ...
- 11/02/16--07:39: _Why NFL TV ratings ...
- 11/07/16--07:57: _Playing Bama means ...
- 11/14/16--12:51: _Alabama is too perf...
- 11/20/16--06:28: _If cold weather mad...
- 11/27/16--12:31: _Thank you, ACC foot...
- 12/07/16--09:01: _Lamar Jackson set o...
- 12/20/16--09:00: _Houston football is...
- 01/01/17--13:46: _Washington, what ma...
- 01/10/17--02:27: _Clemson beat Alabam...
- 02/03/17--08:44: _Tiger Woods finally...
- 02/15/17--10:49: _You can't overthrow...
- 03/08/17--10:24: _The Georgia Dome go...
- 04/30/17--23:24: _The Future of Football
- 06/05/17--12:08: _Alex Honnold casual...
- 06/08/17--11:21: _Bob Stoops’ one hug...
- 09/26/16--09:47: Not even Les Miles could beat time forever
- 10/03/16--11:13: All those Washington Huskies jokes are suddenly not so funny
- Baylor. I dunno. Honestly no one knows what to do with Baylor for a lot of reasons, but narrowly beating Iowa State 45-42 doesn’t prove much.
- West Virginia. Technically undefeated, but it’s not been pretty or compelling, and a narrow victory over a middling K-State doesn’t excite anyone. (Especially after Stanford’s disastrous weekend downgraded KSU.)
- Nebraska. A 31-16 win over Illinois means a lot less when you’re reminded that Illinois was leading going into the fourth quarter.
- Wisconsin. A one-loss team worthy of consideration that I will sideline for this week, solely for being so, so brutal to watch.
- North Carolina. Held out because they lost to a not-real-good Georgia, and also because beating Florida State might not have much intrinsic value.
- Western Michigan. On its way to becoming the Kings of Directional Michigan after a rivalry win over Central Michigan. Also on its way to a coaching search in 2017 when P.J. Fleck is hired away.
- 10/18/16--12:53: Ranking college football’s 11 remaining undefeated teams
- maybe Alabama will be sleepy
- rogue seven-turnover game by the Alabama offense
- Myles Garrett? I dunno, saying “Myles Garrett” and shrugging feels right here
- “Trevor Knight has already beaten Alabama before” shhhh just keep saying it
- maybe Alabama will [mumbles, walks off camera]
- MUSCLE CONFUSION?
- [ALEX JONES SNORTING AND GURGLING]
- Louisville, who only has one loss to Clemson and still has the best player in the nation, Lamar Jackson. This week’s fun and random comparison: in 2016, Lamar Jackson has 90 points by himself, and South Carolina has 84. As a team. That allegedly plays the same sport.
- Houston. Survived 38-31 against Tulsa, a team that had Ohio State pinned down until the third quarter. Waiting to play Louisville, then get lucky elsewhere to make anything New Year’s happen.
- Florida? The question mark is deliberate.
- NC State came within a missed field goal of beating Clemson.
- That same Clemson beat Louisville, 42-36, in one of the season’s sloppier great games.
- This weekend, Louisville rent a hole in the fabric of the universe and threw NC State through it in a 54-13 farce.
- 11/02/16--07:39: Why NFL TV ratings are down, and why you don't have to care
- The box score, which I saw clipped and posted as an image on Twitter. This provoked further curiosity I could have about this game, since I had some time I might have otherwise not had — because I had wisely decided before it ever happened not to watch it.
- Peter King’s MMQB lead-in on the game, which sort of just amounted to some entertaining shrugging and kicker-shaming.
- This tweet from PFTCommenter:
- Clemson scored 42 unanswered before South Carolina decided to return the favor, once.
- Clemson had 41 first downs. I don’t know if you know how hard it is to give up 41 first downs in a football game. If you have 41 first downs in a game, it not only means you were beyond efficient on offense. It means the other team was badly outmatched, but never stopped trying, even when trying felt like an exercise in sorrow. It means South Carolina was the pit bull on the leg of a Tyrannosaurus; it was going to lose, but it was not going to let go until the end. It means we should all admire South Carolina for continuing to tackle, because most teams would have just let things go for touchdowns in the end? Or maybe just shake our heads, because “vast, tireless effort in the name of ignominious defeat” is sort of their head coach’s brand?
- Mike Williams wore a DB into the endzone like he was in a Baby Björn.
- You can eat cake for breakfast.
- Those pants look fine on you.
- It’s not you; it’s definitely someone else’s fault. AND THEY SHOULD BE PUNISHED.
- The winner of this game is in the Playoff.
- Secretary of Education
- Secretary of Veterans Affairs
- Secretary of Homeland Security
- Tom Bergeron
- Tom Bergeron II
- Someone who looks kinda like Tom Bergeron
- Borrow Canada’s prime minister for a few days until you figure it out
- 12/07/16--09:01: Lamar Jackson set our eyes on fire
- 12/20/16--09:00: Houston football is trying to fit a city that's too big for a belt
- 01/10/17--02:27: Clemson beat Alabama, the final product of so many what-ifs
- 02/03/17--08:44: Tiger Woods finally has a story
- 03/08/17--10:24: The Georgia Dome got the farewell it deserved
- comes from someplace where there is a daily quota on words for interpersonal communication
- thought I was a godless bearded urbanite hitting on him
- or was very drunk and hearing me talking on a built-in beer-induced tape delay.
- 04/30/17--23:24: The Future of Football
- 06/08/17--11:21: Bob Stoops’ one huge failure at Oklahoma
The coach and his school were perfect for each other, literally until the last second.
1. Les Miles was fired from his job as LSU football coach this weekend. Getting fired four games into a season would only seem premature if time ever mattered to Miles, but it rarely did. Miles ran out of time, added time to games, forced others to work against it, and sometimes just melted the clock completely.
A one-score LSU game in the last three minutes could accelerate from full-on torpor to electric insanity, mostly because of his belief that a football game can sometimes be a little longer than 60 minutes if he needed it to be. You called people, tweeted at them, and yelled in all-caps when LSU ran shit down to the wire.
Miles at the wheel meant you were guaranteed 58 minutes of reliable, red-meat, Big Ten football. It also meant you got two minutes of off-the-rails Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride banditry that LSU might or might not survive.
2. Take the 2007 Auburn game. Trailing 24-23 in Death Valley, LSU has one timeout and is letting the clock bleed because they have the ball on the Auburn 23 and are probably playing for a field goal. That’s the safe thing: kick a field goal, take the win at home, and NOPE, nope, no that is not what LSU did at all.
Against every bit of game management sense, LSU’s Matt Flynn hit wide receiver Demetrius Byrd for a TD to win. Miles pointed out to potential critics after the game that this was fine, because it left one second on the clock, a second that could have burned off with Flynn scrambling for a second, sure, or if the clock operator had twitched and started things a fraction of a second earlier, or if team hadn’t lined up exactly at the correct pace. But Les thought he had enough time.
LSU won and would go on to a national title, largely because Miles decided to be fine with having one damn second left on the clock when other coaches would have been strangling assistants to get a timeout called.
It was insane, negligent, or courageous, or all three.
3. Anyway, LSU had to fire him now. He’d been cornered before by people at the university, the state government, and Louisiana powerbrokers bent on ditching him. In 2015, after one such attempt, he gave a press conference with a lot of those people in the same room, a day after a 19-7 win over Texas A&M in which Miles received a hero’s welcome. For one day, at least, Miles vetoed them single-handedly. For a day, he was the governor of the state and got to have his athletic director and a lot of other people who wanted him gone sit and listen to him talk about how happy he was to stay.
Got outflanked by a dude who eats grass and is unsure how clocks work. Happens pic.twitter.com/NNeDjV4N9l— Brian Floyd (@BrianMFloyd) November 29, 2015
People in power also do not like to be embarrassed. There were and are completely legitimate reasons for Miles’ firing. LSU had lost five straight games to Alabama, its closest rival in terms of talent and national stature and its natural roadblock in the SEC West.
Despite sending 67 drafted players to the NFL, LSU had just two SEC titles in Miles’ tenure, with the last coming in 2011. LSU brought in jaw-dropping talent year after year, and yet found more and more elaborate, depressing ways to squander it.
The Tigers offenses in particular were brutal, and the success of LSU offensive prospects like Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry made the contrast between their talent and their production even more glaring: If you’re so good, what the hell did they have you doing down there, dude?
The last three years of bowl destinations trace the slow, but still profitable, decline as well as anything else: Outback, Music City, Texas.
4. But don’t think for a second Miles was fired in Week 4 solely for his record. LSU’s administration had to bag him on a slow Sunday afternoon before Les got even the slightest bit of momentum behind a comeback campaign. It happened in 2015, when a late flurry of sentiment and political whiplash saved Miles’ job.
Word is #LSU made the move now bc there was a feeling Les Miles might temporarily save his job again & program would keep going in circles.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) September 25, 2016
Miles could have crawled into the air ducts, hidden in the stadium, or gotten in with Mike in the tiger exhibit and swam happily in his pool each morning until reinstated. The people could have rallied, given enough time and heroics, and that possibility had to be eliminated.
That was possible, mind you, but not likely. These are the dreary facts: A 2-2 LSU team with an injured-but-still-game running back, no semblance of a passing game, and a pretty good defense lost a one-point game to SEC West rival Auburn. The fear was that they would keep losing that game forever, fall further behind Alabama, and sink into mediocrity.
5. A lot of this comes back to LSU having no clue how to develop or keep a quarterback.
That was largely on Miles, an adherent of the run game, defense, and the occasional special teams escapade who won a national title with Flynn, got to another title game with something called “Jordan Jefferson/Jarrett Lee,” and then spent the better part of a half-decade sifting through transfers and busted talent. At one point in 2008, with the rest of the team stacked with NFL draft picks and blue-chip talent, Miles started a transfer from Harvard at quarterback for three games. That guy eventually transferred back to Harvard.
That’s really it. I can’t summarize this any better than: “Miles started a Harvard QB in the SEC and got away with it, then had the guy go back to Massachusetts.”
That was before the five-star quarterback who was questioned regarding his involvement in a riverboat casino/counterfeiting incident, the other five-star who fizzled after Miles moved him to wide receiver, and the four-star who lost his job to a Purdue transfer. The last one was Brandon Harris, and that happened this year, but even when he signed, you could assume he was doomed.
When he hired an NFL offensive coordinator most famous for having his team improve to Super Bowl quality after he was fired midseason, it was over. It had been over for quite a while, and the rest was simply capering.
6. It is amazing that anyone lasts 11-plus years in the SEC, so consider what a freak of nature it is that Miles lasted this long. Miles was not an overt workaholic, back-slapping good ol’ boy, or tactical genius of any sort. He never countried up or softened his Ohio accent. He never claimed to not take vacation. He made time for his kids, and breezed through press conferences without the periodic tantrums and hip-checking most coaches rely on to keep the press at bay. He appeared in commercials and rappelled off buildings for charity and made cameos in movies. He pushed his lunches on visiting reporters when they said they were hungry, ran red lights on camera because he was distracted, and congratulated a reporter and his wife on the birth of their first child after a miscarriage. He kissed pigs for charity and answered press questions honestly but in a syntax so garbled that diagramming just one answer would risk breaking your understanding of language as you know it. He somehow stayed largely human in a profession bent towards inhuman work hours and cold management practices.
He is in many senses an evolutionary football accident, and thus needed the perfect environment to survive. For a long time, Miles had that at LSU, but LSU also had that in Miles. Miles’ unflappable, but affable weirdness was the perfect match for a team that had to start his first season with Hurricane Katrina. That 2005 team didn’t even get a fall camp and had to postpone two games and play another on the road at Arizona State. They still finished 11-2, even with helicopters swarming Baton Rouge and legendary musician Fats Domino sleeping on starting QB JaMarcus Russell’s couch.
7. His peak came during a raucous, disorderly, and supremely entertaining 2007 season, when LSU became the only two-loss team in the modern era to win a national championship. Miles’ LSU beat Florida in the best football game I have ever seen by going for it on five fourth downs; lost two hair-raising, triple-OT games vs. Arkansas and Kentucky; beat Tennessee in the SEC Championship with a backup QB; and then came home to New Orleans to rout Ohio State for the title after an inexplicable series of events that college football historians are still trying to understand. (They won’t, ever. Stop trying. 2007 is the most perfect season ever and makes absolutely no sense.)
I got one of my first credentials for that 2007 SEC Championship. Before the game, Kirk Herbstreit had reported on ESPN that a deal between Miles and the University of Michigan was all but done. This wasn’t new: The rumor that Miles would return to his alma mater had been a thing all season, and LSU’s success didn’t do much to dispel that. The news got leaked. This happened all the time.
The press was mostly milling around when someone put out word that “Les wants to address the media.” Keep in mind, I had no idea how any of this worked. Maybe coaches did this all the time? Sure, maybe they did this all the time. There was a short intro, and then Les Miles cut a WWE promo in a hallway in the Georgia Dome.
MY DAMN STRONG FOOTBALL TEAM. Miles basically used the phrase “large adult sons” in reference to his football team, and then told everyone to “have a great day” in the most full-stop Ohio accent possible. I thought that maybe this was how they all were, and it turns out I was so, so wrong.
LSU would paint “Have a great day” on the back of their equipment truck after that, and that was it. LSU and Miles were in that moment perfect for each other, and really good for a long time afterward, even with the notorious clock disasters and last-minute wins and endless fake field goals against Florida. Maybe as much because of those, as anything else.
8. His legacy is, to borrow his own words, a damn strong one. Miles leaves with a higher winning percentage than Saban had at the school, two SEC titles, and that 2007 national championship. He’ll be paid an absurd amount of money not to coach football, and is not the sort of dude who gets bent about much, including losing the job he held with seemingly little obvious effort for more than 11 years. He’ll be fine, and it should be over. There are so many reasons for it to be over for Miles at LSU, but reasons don’t ever matter past the moment of action.
It’s not just that Miles was beyond fun. It’s that he and LSU together were so much fun, and that the sight of fans in banana costumes and purple and yellow batman gear and making T-Rex celebrations just seemed to spawn around him. He was fine by himself, sure, but in the daily surreal of Louisiana, Miles not only fit, but thrived.
9. Even the end is on key for Miles.
He lost a game at the wire, one of those games when the two-minute mark hit and you began frantically DMing friends: Here it goes again. LSU won, then they didn’t, and then they lost, and in between all that all hell broke loose. Miles took not one, but two football teams and their fans through all three phases of football existence in a second. He was a self-contained uncertainty principle, a quantum maypole for random football outcomes, a charmed quark that lived most happily and vibrantly in the last 15 seconds.
10. It all kind of works. Miles debuted at LSU during hurricane season and leaves during hurricane season, too early for some, too late for others, and perfectly on schedule for his personal brand of doing things on his unknowable calendar.
He had risked disaster for years, but it finally happened. After so many last-minute debacles and dramatic escapes, after tossing seconds away casually at the gun, Miles disappeared into a wormhole for good because he lost a second he couldn’t spare.
I’ll miss that, I really will. But if there has to be an ending, I’d write this one for Miles as a coach. The one where he almost survives 2016 by daring and effort and luck. The one with sudden hyperventilating, chaos, and the trademark flurry of brilliance at the last minute. The one where suddenly, as soon as he’d come back, just when you think he might claw his way out of it, the clock he’d kept on a low simmer for years melts in his hands. An ending where Miles, after as charmed a coaching life as a charismatic lunatic can have, finally runs out of ti-
The Top Whatever is Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of only the college football teams that must be ranked.
Hi, Clemson. We forgot about you for a while, and then you beat the best football player in the country. Forgive us all. It happens when you have 128 teams to consider overall, at least 20 with a possibility of winning a national title.
It also happens when Clemson, which beat Louisville 42-36 in Death Valley, dares to play a preseason in front of a national audience. Prior to a full-spectrum, three-phase performance against the Cardinals, Clemson spent much of 2016 warming up in public. They won a defensive struggle against Auburn, and had a 30-24 clanker against Troy. The Tigers suffocated Georgia Tech on defense, but seemed tentative on offense. The Deshaun Watson who nearly won a national title by himself at quarterback in 2015? Absent in part.
Against Louisville, Watson committed four turnovers, but threw five TDs, and one of the INTs wasn’t his fault. The defense allowed a whopping total 457 yards and three TDs to Lamar Jackson, but that’s actually pretty good, given the damage he can do. The defensive line battered him, forced turnovers, and actually made him work for first yards. Artavis Scott and Clemson’s special teams worked when everything else wasn’t, which is what good special teams do.
Dabo Swinney is now 10-5 in games against top-10 opponents, and the Tigers got exactly what they needed to defeat a Louisville that will destroy so many other teams before the season is over.
ALSO DABO THINKS YOU’RE GREAT, BOBBY, LIKE A REALLY SOLID DUDE. YOU’RE THE BEST MAN. DO YOU HAVE MY KEYS? COOL, IT’S GOOD, KEYS ARE GOOD, YOU KEEP ‘EM CAUSE I’M WAY TOO DRIVE TO DRUNK OUT OF HERE.
THE BESSSSSSSSST, MAN.
OH MY GOD, WASHINGTON.
The fun running gag for about a decade and a half now has been to suggest that Washington was going to turn around its fortunes. Then, having gotten real excited about all the fun stuff Washington football can be — oooh, their stadium by the water shakes, and not just because of seismic activity — everyone watches as hope and ’90s nostalgia are crushed by the weight of reality and Steve Sarkisian getting the program stuck on seven wins for years at a stretch.
There is no joke any more, unless you find the smoking crater where Stanford was to be funny. If you were a Washington fan, you should find it hilarious. Last year, Christian McCaffrey had 300 all-purpose yards in a 31-14 Stanford win. This year, the entire Stanford offense didn’t have that many yards.
Most of that happened at the point of attack. (Where Stanford usually dominates.) Washington’s D-line abused Stanford’s line. (Where Stanford usually dominates.) The Huskies offensive line erased Stanford’s line for most of the night. (Again: usually Stanford’s thing.) The Cardinal had 29 yards rushing, a total that gets them just out of the tee box on a golf course. (Stanford is not Washington State. Especially this week.)
It’s early, and there is the distinct possibility that Stanford just might not be that good this year. But the Huskies put together as complete an asskicking on a major stage as any team this year, and did so with cruel efficiency.
This is your official notice that Washington is quantifiably good and to update your list of running gags immediately.
You see a team that could’ve lost by fine margins in a 34-31 win over Georgia decided by a last-second Hail Mary.
I see a team with a mobile QB who somehow has not gotten injured despite taking massive hits, a defense that keeps getting timely play despite injuries, and some random dervish/goblin who oversees their games, tips the ball at the proper times, and provides spiritual assistance.
That’s not a very materialist argument. But it’s what we’re left with, since Tennessee keeps flipping scripts on us, first by beating Florida, and now by winning the kind of close games they could not close out in 2015. A team like that is not to be trifled with the deeper you go into the season, because Tennessee is the kind of team who will pull off Hail Marys, earn inordinate fumble luck, and do things like have Alvin Kamara almost fall out of bounds, turn himself into a footstool to stay in bounds, and then sprint up the sideline for a crucial late TD.
Stay away, get a priest, and purchase the spiritual totem of your choice. It might not matter, because a decade of bad luck is all coming full circle. Butch Jones is spending good luck in one year like it’s an unexpected tax refund.
One of our nation’s finest traditions: screencapping the fleeting instant Alabama trails in a game against lesser competition.
Playing Kentucky is a value-free proposition; either you blow them out for little value, struggle pointlessly for a while before winning 34-6, or worst of all, lose someone to injury in a meaningless cross-divisional game. Fortunately, Alabama knows this already and made this a productive scrimmage by getting an efficient game out of Jalen Hurts at QB and holding Kentucky to a meager 161 yards.
Alabama continues to score a ton of points off defense and special teams, which is a good thing, even if it makes you nervous about the offense. (Which, yeah, Alabama fans are nervous about the offense, because they have to invent something to be worried about.)
Bama’s doing some light jogging, coming off a deload week, and just trying to stay flexible before a heavy lifting day against Arkansas. (Literally the heaviest lifting day.)
Probably says a lot about where the team is that the phrase “satisfying 42-14 revenge win over UConn” is an actual storyline. It’s not inaccurate — the Cougars did take their only loss in 2015 from UConn, a team that exists not to succeed, but ruin other people’s success — but it’s not yanno, beating Lamar Jackson (something they still get a chance to do, btw, on Nov. 17).
6. Ohio State
Rutgers coach Chris Ash is a former staffer of Urban Meyer’s, and I’m certain that after getting up 30-0 at halftime, the Buckeyes would downshift and run out the clock to save their old friend some —
— OK, OK, Urban’s still the mean dad who won’t let you win things, and that’s why you lost 58-0, Rutgers. The fun part is watching the Buckeyes casually peel off 400 yards of rushing.
Ohio State has to play Indiana this week, which is a voyage into madness for all concerned, but mostly for the few remaining Indiana fans capable of faking sanity. Will this be a 42-40 game won by Ohio State on a walkoff safety? Probably.
The first one-loss team listed in the 2016 Top Whatever because a.) losing on the road by six to a good team should not toss you from any rankings in the first week of October, and b.) they still have Jackson.
Lamar. Lamar can’t do it all by himself, y’all. I’m being Leon for you, Lamar, since you would never say this.
Won the kind of 14-7 defense-first game against Wisconsin that no one outside of said game needs to rewatch or talk about ever again. Mind you, everyone plays that kind of game against Wisconsin, so winning it counts for a lot.
Losing your starting left tackle for the season, however, is a nasty price to pay for that, particularly when the Michigan offense has been somewhere just above average overall. For instance: Michigan stands 69th in passing offense right now, and Nice is the capital of the French department of Alpes-Maritimes on the southern coast of that august nation.
9. Texas A&M
A 24-13 victory over the Gamecocks is fine, because every game involving South Carolina is designed to come down to a score like 24-13. South Carolina’s always the 13 here, btw.
Creeping into the Top Whatever with another casual victory, this time a 35-21 win over Georgia Tech. Miami’s schedule will strengthen somewhat after a visit from Florida State this week, though it should be pointed out that a win over Florida State is different than a win over Georgia Tech. Tech actually has an ACC victory.
We’re past Oct. 1, and Florida State is 0-2 in the ACC. Did I just list Miami to remind everyone of this? Yes. Florida State could soon be 0-3 in the ACC.
This is The Top Whatever, Spencer Hall's weekly ranking of only the teams that must be ranked at this time.
You get points in the Top Whatever for doing things I like. For instance, if you win a game over a bitter rival by more than 40 points, like in a 70-21 win over Oregon? Points. Beat them in their own stadium? Points. Beat them so bad their ass glows and attracts a horde of bugs who believe said glowing ass is a streetlight? Many points.
It is risky to think about whether Washington is objectively one of the best teams in the nation. They have dominant wins over Stanford and Oregon, two Pac-12 teams who passed their expiration dates sometime around August 30. They struggled with Arizona on the road in a 35-28 win. You can be skeptical. It’s perfectly legal, especially if we’re talking about the eternally mutable Pac-12, where Washington State can lose to an FCS team, but then dominate two teams in conference play.
It’s also fine to note Washington is one of the few teams in 2016 to beat a national power, even one in decline, to the point of theatrical cruelty. Jake Browning had eight touchdowns in a single game, and got to do this to an Oregon defender.
P.S. Oregon needs to burn those uniforms. They’re contaminated, and no amount of bleach will help.
Do not tell me we are not a nation of sadists. The minute this 78-0 win over Rutgers began to get horrendously out of hand, everyone I know sought it out over actual games that mattered. But I was watching to see the nobility of futile struggle and supporting poor Rutgers in their impossible quest to get a first down! Sure, Camus. Sure.
Rutgers finally did get a first down, and in fact got two. This is a real accomplishment: Michigan’s defense is first in the nation in total defense, dominant at pretty much every position on the field.
It’d be cruel to mention that former Michigan coach and current Oregon defensive coordinator Brady Hoke’s former team scored 78 points this weekend and that his current team allowed 70. It’d be crueler to make up a stat called The Hoke Differential and note that the variance in The Hoke Differential this weekend was 148 points. I'd never suggest doing that. Nope.
Fine, they’re fine, they’re deep and excellent and still totally fine.
Do you feel disrespected by a lack of national attention, Alabama? OH HOW NOVEL. It’s your fault for being that much better than everyone, grooming Jalen Hurts so effectively at quarterback, and having Minkah Fitzpatrick play sweeper so well that you almost don’t need an offense.
If you do want some reasons for pessimism, just because you’re bored? Being good on offense against Arkansas in a 49-30 win isn’t a big reason for excitement, since the Razorbacks had allowed over 10 yards a play in a game already. Your offense outside of the Arkansas game hasn’t been that explosive, and by the numbers, the plays Alabama does allow are big ones. Disrespect yourself with these facts before someone else does, because that’s what real champions do for next-level motivational tactics.
P.S. The next two games are against Tennessee and Texas A&M, two teams with mobile quarterbacks, able-to-excellent run games, and disruptive defensive line play. Pretend you’re worried about these games, and experience the thrill of almost being a normal, vulnerable, human football fan.
4. Ohio State
The part where we say "Indiana did a pretty good job on pass defense" like that’s a thing you’ll believe. (Even though it’s totally true, and they held J.T. Barrett to 9-of-21 for 93 yards, one TD, and one INT.) The thing where we say that Ohio State is good enough to lean on the run game and their defense to win games, and that 90 percent of the time, that will be more than enough.
Where we say that Wisconsin as an upcoming matchup would be interesting, if Wisconsin didn’t have zero ability to move the ball on Ohio State’s defense?
Where we have to say how dominant Ohio State still is, even in underwhelming games played at max effort by lesser competition? And that they might owe Wisconsin a thank you note, since a 14-10 win or something like that next week might be just fine since everyone in the universe knows every Wisconsin game involves the Badgers digging trenches at the 20s and dragging the other team into a mini-Verdun? And that that’s fine, because styles make fights, and no game against Wisconsin is going to look "good" by any standard besides "Big Ten 1980?"
5. Texas A&M
As everyone surely predicted, Texas A&M is a run-first team reliant on its backs, offensive line, and timely play from its defense. You have to say "timely" this week, and not "dominant," because allowing 684 yards to Tennessee in a 45-38 OT win knocks you down to "timely." (Don’t ask for a more accurate adjective here, Texas A&M; you might get one, and really not like it.)
The Aggies were lacking a fully functional Myles Garrett on the defensive line. They also ran for 353 yards in all, and did in the run game what they did in pulling away from Arkansas: waiting, waiting, and letting QB Trevor Knight keep the ball on zone reads for critical gains. Hey, Knight gets to play Alabama in two weeks! That’s never happened before, ever.
The Aggies might be the most complete, seasoned team in the SEC West. That doesn’t mean anything when you have to play Alabama, but it’s nice when you wake up screaming while thinking about playing without a fully healthy Garrett.
At Boston College, everyone looks like they’re moving at half-speed. It might be the fog, the sad lighting, the turf, or maybe just the miasma surrounding BC football.
Therefore, grade up the 56-10 score in Clemson’s blowout of the Eagles to something like 73-10, since Clemson simply would have scored more had they not had the restrictor plate/dragging anchor of Alumni Stadium. Today you learned that Boston College plays at something called "Alumni Stadium," something I totally knew before writing this, and definitely did not look up because sometimes I forget that Boston College football exists.
My favorite stat from an unremarkable slaughter? Boston College scored just 10 points and had the ball for over 38 minutes. SO MUCH ENDLESS FOOTBALL FRITTERING. The BC offense is a screensaver.
I dunno, I just want to rank you for committing seven turnovers in a game you almost won. This is not a real ranking, you didn’t see this, you’re very drunk and seeing things, and please go lie down.
5-0 and wisely decided not to play football this week, meaning we can continue to postpone talking about Baylor in 2016 for another week or so.
Also wisely decided not to play football this week, meaning we can postpone the awkward conversation about whether they’re good at all.
Though I do like this as a running gag, like the new "Did you know the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals:" Please hold an "IS NEBRASKA GOOD?" sign up in the back of the next Presidential debate preview crowd, please, so we can all get tired of it, like we do with everything amusing.
10. Western Michigan
If the Big Ten wants to drop Rutgers and pick up WMU, they could probably do it this week with little complaint. P.J. Fleck’s team leads the MAC in every major category, beat NIU 45-30, and still hasn’t committed a turnover all season.
11. Boise State
The Broncos beat the titans of the Pac-12, Washington State, so they must be incredible. Shame that they only really have BYU on the schedule in terms of teams people might know about on a sort of national level, since they’re solid on both sides of the ball and trending upward after a 49-21 victory over New Mexico.
BTW: Brett Rypien played quarterback with a comfort level bordering on autopilot. Like, it was shocking how smooth he looked, especially if you flipped over from watching, oh, let’s say Boston College.
Falling out of the Week 5 Top Whatever
Houston. Not fair, after a 46-40 loss to Navy.
For one, they can claim they lost this game for the morale of our nation’s fighting men and women at sea.
Two: It was also a loss to a triple-option team, something you can point to and go, "you know, we were never good at it, right?" Defending triple-option teams are basically like any math past algebra. It’s okay that you struggle with it because no one uses it on a daily basis, almost everyone hates dealing with it when they do, and if you do like it, everyone thinks you’re weird. (Also: encountered most often at places with high admissions standards.)
Rutgers. Not that they were in the Top Whatever, but I feel like ceremonially demoting them is only appropriate after one of the worst Power 5 losses we have ever seen. Here is a sad man from Rutgers failing to appreciate anything I, you, we, or anyone has to say about his pain.
The Top Whatever is Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of only the teams that demand to be ranked at this time.
1. Ohio State
Here’s the odd thing about ranking anyone. By mentioning someone else first, it is all but guaranteed that the first people paying the most attention to said ranking will be the people who were not listed first.
So let’s talk about you, since that’s your favorite thing, and you’re the one reading this. You didn’t play on the road at Wisconsin, a full-strength mauler of a team. You played Tennessee. They have Derek Barnett and Colton Jumper on defense. The other nine spots on the depth chart are occupied by golems made from medical tape. You should have run for 400 yards on them. You’re Alabama, and they are a burn ward in orange and white.
Also, y’all notice you’re running the inverted veer now?
Inverted Veer off jet action with Arc block from Bama. Deadly. pic.twitter.com/suwVnCulIf— Caleb (@CJDNole) October 16, 2016
It even has the Gus Malzahn arc block in there. You’re doing all that icky spread offense stuff Nick Saban spent at least two years moaning about as the end of football itself, and not even trying to hide it.
Deny it if you will, but I’m not the one wearing red and talking about an unstoppable Tide. The People’s Revolution was the original Process, and Bama blowing up a bunch of outmanned Volunteers with a faceless army is clear enough evidence to me.
P.P.S. I’m a hypocrite, because I would actually buy this one.
P.P.P.S. You not being No. 1 is more about Tennessee not being as competitive as they might have been, and less about you being the College Football Borg, assimilating all tactics and movements and strategies and seamlessly integrating them into your death machine. REBUILD BRYANT-DENNY AS A CUBE.
Ohio State, you’re in the next entry, which is actually the one about the demonstrated best team in the country this week.
Actually, it’s Ohio State! Wisconsin made you look awful in a 30-23 road win, Ohio State’s 20th straight under Urban Meyer. This is Wisconsin’s game plan, every week, for every team. The new wrinkle was getting the ball run on you for over 200 yards on the night, something Wisconsin had only previously done against Akron in 2016.
That might be worrisome, but eventually a Paul Chryst team was going to figure out the run game. And even with that, the Buckeyes’ defense got stops when they needed them, and also got the mistake that redshirt freshman quarterback Alexi Hornibrook was bound to make. (Remember: if you like the taste of turnovers, set a young quarterback on a 60-minute timer and you’ll get a few.)
Ohio State got a few from J.T. Barrett, but the ability to work through bad/difficult/ugly situations is a thing experience will give you. Barrett is not Braxton Miller blowing the doors off safeties on long TD runs. He is not Cardale Jones winging the ball 50 yards downfield off his back foot, because Barrett is not a charismatic giant with a pumpkin-chunkin’ arm.
What Barrett is: a really good bad-ball hitter of a quarterback, a golfer capable of hitting it clean out of someone’s living room, a bowler who picks up 7-10 splits, a quarterback athletic and tenacious enough to get over what got him in a bad situation in the first place. The final possession in OT was Barrett on five plays (four passes, one rush) closing the door on a legit upset threat.
It’s also nice if you have Noah Brown in the end zone.
Your team is so stupid for not having a Noah Brown. Get smarter, other teams.
Survived a brutal 24-17 game against NC State. If you did not watch this game: don’t. NC State played a 99.99999 percent perfect game of obstructionist football. They threw screen after screen to slow down the pass rush, choked off the run game, forced Deshaun Watson to throw 52 times, and encouraged Clemson to turn the ball over four times.
The Wolfpack then missed a potential game-winning field goal before collapsing in overtime. NC State has the misfortune of being a well-coached team with zero doubt about its identity. They have small ambitions and large reserves of meanness; they know waiting for you to make a mistake is a better strategy than hoping to make much happen on their own.
They’re a frustrating-to-watch defense-minded soccer team that scores on the counter. Fortunately for Dabo Swinney and Clemson, they miss penalty kicks and lack a consistent striker and midfield talent.
What’s wrong with Watson this year, you ask? Why dear reader, it’s that —
[/ejects from column]
[/waits for six straight months of anonymous NFL scout slander about his small hands or big hands or hands with the wrong attitude or other mostly invented critiques]
— he’s pressing? Losing starting running back Wayne Gallman to a vicious hit did not help, so we’ll continue to hedge on “Watson is pressing” as the best answer to why he’s a notch off what he was for most of 2015. It’s just hard to accept variance as a real thing that happens with fallible athletes who play games with 21 other people on the field at once.
Wisely avoided football last week and will not play another football game until October 29 at Michigan State. You tell me, “Oh, they play Illinois this week, you forgot about them.” No, I didn’t.
The Huskies also skipped football this week to plan for Oregon State. Oregon State just lost starting quarterback Darrell Garretson to an ankle injury. Oregon State is going to have to be wrung out of a mop after this game.
6. Texas A&M
Yet another bye-week team, though resting up for Alabama scarcely feels like a bye week. Here’s where you are supposed to read all the reasons why a win over Alabama isn’t an impossibility, presented with as little enthusiasm as I can:
America’s second-least-impressive undefeated team is still unimpressively undefeated after a 27-22 win over Indiana. The Huskers play headless Purdue next week, a team fresh off a coach firing and a game in which they had to call a timeout to properly take a knee.
Then, in successive weeks, Nebraska will play at Wisconsin and at Ohio State. You know when you go from two light jogs a week to the full Henry Cavill Superman workout without any prep? That’s what Nebraska is about to do, and if they’re still undefeated after that, I will rank them first in the nation and do the Henry Cavill Superman workout as penance.
Beat Kansas 49-7, and let’s see, a bye week, and then let’s see if they finally play anyone ... TEXAS? BAYLOR, HOW DO YOU MAKE AN ENTIRE SCHEDULE WITHOUT EVER PLAYING ANYONE? HOW.
9. West Virginia
Dominated Texas Tech, 48-17, which would mean a lot if dominating TTU — a team that allowed eight TDs to a single player in a game this season — meant anything. The Mountaineers are playing well, regardless of any market corrections made here on Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury.
Kingsbury makes $3.7 mil a year and is 22-22 in Lubbock. IOWA, WE FOUND YOUR NEXT MAN. COME AND GET HIM IN 48 YEARS WHEN THE JAR-DWELLING HEAD OF KIRK FERENTZ FINALLY RETIRES.
10. Boise State
Sure, they’re undefeated. Let’s note that, and then do what we’ve done for years: ignore Boise State being undefeated. Their 28-23 win over Colorado State had week six’s Ending Lawyers Get Excited About, thanks to some dubious lateraling that didn’t matter.
Q: Is coaching at Colorado State turning Mike Bobo into a hollow shell of a man?
Gadzooks, Bobo looks like he spent the night running from the spirits of trapped miners in an abandoned copper mine.
11. Western Michigan
If I put Boise in here, you’re damn right I’ll put WMU in here. Akron broke an oar to mock P.J. Fleck’s primary motivational credo, “row the boat.” Akron got broken, 41-0.
Wow. Akron making a statement today. PJ Fleck and WMU use "row the boat" slogan...on the field, the Akron football team destroyed an oar. pic.twitter.com/fOMzzDgzbQ— Taylor Rooks (@TaylorRooks) October 15, 2016
DON’T MOCK P.J. FLECK’S PRECIOUS MOTTOES AND ACRONYMS OF EXCELLENCE, AKRON. Fleck’s going to be horrifying coaching LSU next year, though I can’t decide which kind of horrifying.
Teams with one loss that are probably good enough to creep back in once Alabama loses the one game they need to throw to pretend they’re mortal:
The Top Whatever is Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of only the teams that must be ranked at this time.
OK YOU’RE GREAT WHATEVER FINE. The gut-wrenching realization about this Alabama team is that, yes they are a delight to watch, even if their games are like foreclosure proceedings punctuated by moments of breathtaking athleticism.
There are no explanations for how this team will lose, and no predictions for when. They can run Lane Kiffin’s hybrid inverted veer-bone and roll out a predatory 3-4 defense with perfect pattern reads and premium talent. They score on special teams and only miss like, one or two field goals a game at most.
Case in point: starting safety and punt returner Eddie Jackson broke his leg against Texas A&M in the Tide’s 33-14 victory. Jackson was replaced by junior Hootie Jones (a four-star recruit) in the base defense and junior Tony Brown (five-star) in the dime package. His role as punt returner was filled by Xavian Marks, a reported 4.4 runner who has already returned a TD this year.
You can’t replace Jackson’s experience in all three roles. If you’re Alabama, though, you can reach into the bench and pull out three qualified and seasoned replacements. The talent of the starting 11 is one thing, but what’s kept the Tide moving like a nuclear winter through the SEC is depth.
Your backup sixth DB IS A FIVE-STAR VETERAN. When they run out of champagne, Alabama has more champagne, which is how they keep drinking champagne. If they lose, it will be an anomaly, an error of math, a lightning strike. You know, like an undefeated Ohio State beating Penn State in almost every statistical category and losing anyway.
A 4-3 team makes the top 10 this week for buying petty low and selling it high. UCF beat UConn, 24-16, in a game that would not matter if UConn had not randomly selected a school 1,218.8 miles away as its rival. It should be noted that they did not bother to tell UCF about it ahead of time, either.
Knightro, tell ‘em.
I think Regina George said it best pic.twitter.com/OTxNCVo9Mg— Knightro (@UCF_Knightro) October 10, 2015
That was last year, when UCF was trashing the idea of the rivalry even in the middle of a 40-13 blowout by UConn.
This year, after turning around and beating the Huskies, the Knights left the field of the “Civil ConFLiCT” without the rivalry trophy, like a half-crushed Powerade cup. That trophy: The one UConn had made for the rivalry with the name ripped straight from the 1990s school of TWiStED mOviE TitLeZ, the one that looks like something you get for selling insurance real well.
UConn made an anti-friendship bracelet for you, and YOU THREW UCONN’S ANTI-FRIENDSHIP BRACELET AWAY. That’s championship level spite, UCF. Not even remembering that your original mascot was an unholy mongrel Space Orange-Astronaut can dim our respect for the style displayed here. You’re 1a this week because football is a game of the heart, and yours is cold enough to survive any winter, UCF.
UCF doesn’t think about you at all, UConn. They don’t think about you at all.
Couldn’t even let Illinois have a normal mercy score and won, 41-8, but that’s Illinois’ fault for going for the noble two-point conversion. This must be the opposite of a Sad Field Goal, even if posting an ocho looks almost as sad. An eight says, “We wanted to show we still had fight in us, a delusional desire to fight, even as we were getting our head kicked in by a team that let 15 different players get rushing attempts on us.”
Jim Harbaugh probably appreciated that, in between impressing recruits by showing up in vans at heinous hours.
Explaining his decision to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he raved about U-M coach Jim Harbaugh, calling him "the coolest dude I ever met in my life" and citing how impressed he was that Harbaugh came to pick up recruits in a van at midnight after U-M's game.
Harbaugh picking you up in a van: probably cool. Bill Snyder picking you up at a van at midnight? Not cool, because that’s how you wind up helping him restock snack machines for extra cash. You think those out-of-production mid-’80s Nike Cortezes pay for themselves? With salary? Son, only a fool spends their salary.
Michigan also came out in the Train formation again, because Harbaugh would dress his players up as snarling bears if he could, but this will have to do.
Michigan used this formation again on the touchdown play. pic.twitter.com/evpPXk1aup— Curtis (@Curtos07) October 22, 2016
A 41-17 breeze through Oregon State feels like something Washington shouldn’t take for granted, which is cool because the Huskies are good enough to start treating these games as practices, and yeah, sort of taking them granted.
That might seem unfair to Oregon State, an improving team at least one year away from being competitive. They’re trying, but ... this is how Oregon State defended Dante Pettis, the Huskies’ second leading receiver, in the third quarter.
Oregon State, we feel your pain. So does the rest of the Pac-12, because Washington could have taken this game for granted. Instead, they gained over 500 yards on you and took a 38-3 lead before going into clockbleed mode.
Didn’t play, which is always smart.
The transitive property is useless. Stop using it, unless it suits my purposes exclusively, in which case it is great.
(For instance: South Alabama beat San Diego State, who beat Cal, who beat Texas, who beat Notre Dame, who beat Syracuse, who beat Virginia Tech, who beat North Carolina, who beat Pitt, who beat Penn State, who beat Ohio State. Thus does the transitive property prove that South Alabama is a superior team to Ohio State, along with everyone who’s beaten South Alabama this year. You don’t want any part of Arkansas State, Buckeyes. Not one delicious, venison-scented bite of them.)
Louisville remains a full-power, three-phase team with the best player in college football. They are terrifying as long as Lamar Jackson stays healthy, which you should want, because you like beautiful things. The rest of Louisville’s schedule should help: Virginia, Boston College, Wake Forest, Houston, and Kentucky, and only Houston poses a real threat.
Jackson already has over 3,000 yards in 2016. Based on those defenses remaining, he might finish the regular season with 5,000 ... and still finish second in the nation in total yardage. Texas Tech QB Pat Mahomes has 3,550, and barring injury and assuming consistent production will definitely finish with over 5,000 yards and could threaten fellow TTU QB B.J. Symons’ record of 5,976 yards, set in 2003.
That’s a lot of math. So if that doesn’t help, here’s a GIF of Jackson running so fast that even Jackson can’t handle it.
Final stats: 20-of-34 passing for 355 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions, 76 yards and one touchdown on the ground, and one tackle (of himself).
6. Stella the Owl
This Temple animal hates me and you and everything not of owl or owlkind so, so much.
Look at that Cotton Hill-lookin’ owl. It’s just radiant with disdain for every less murderous thing around it. Don’t even think about having one as a pet, even if Stella looks like the living embodiment of everything you feel about the universe.
He’s gonna want you to stay up hooting along with him, man. Harry Potter lied about everything, but mostly about owls being cuddly, and British people having feelings about anything that weren’t “THIS IS SHITE” and “well that wasn’t going to work anyway, nothing ever does.” Temple upset USF, 46-30, and it didn’t matter to Stella, because all she dreams about is killing in dark silence, not American Athletic Conference football.
JUST MISSING, AFTER DOING THINGS LIKE, I DUNNO, SUFFERING YOUR FIRST LOSS OF THE YEAR TO PENN STATE, OR HAVING A WEAK SCHEDULE SO FAR?
Ohio State. They’ll be back, provided they win out and figure out what’s happening in their passing game, and also in pass protection, and also quit doing that swoony thing their offense does for extended periods of games, and oh there’s also the matter of what happened on that blocked kick, and the strange pair of TD drives they allowed Penn State to get, and ... there’s a lot, Ohio State. There’s just a lot to look at here, and that’s before you also have to figure out how you held Penn State to under 300 yards and still lost.
Nebraska. Still sticking to the “win your scheduled games against Wisconsin and Ohio State and become GODS” philosophy.
West Virginia. It would be on brand for WVU to go 11-1 and get shut out of the Playoff because a.) the Big 12’s strength of schedule fell apart, b.) they won’t play a conference title game, and c.) some random terrible thing happens to them along the way. Dave Wannstedt has a place in football history, and it’s starring as “The Enormous Talking Sandwich That Destroyed West Virginia’s Best Shot at a BCS Title” in a movie every Mountaineer fan hates down to their marrow. (WVU’s good, though. Really, really good.)
Baylor. See: “West Virginia, but with a less comfortable appraisal process.”
Western Michigan. PJ Fleck is bound for the LSU job, since he is basically Les Miles’ Adderall-chomping son.
Boise State. Still undefeated and insanely fun and, yeah, saddled with a Mountain West Conference schedule. Still got tee dog, though.
WHO’S A GOOD BOY. That dog will catch a halfback pass one day. That makes it merely a trick play; it becomes Boise State when the dog laterals for a game-winning TD.
Football fans aren’t watching. They’re not missing anything.
The NFL’s ratings are down. You don’t have to care. Contrary to what the NFL would like to you think, it’s not a fifth branch of the military, a fourth branch of government, or even a third uncle to you. It’s not a national park, or a vital security interest for this nation. It’s 32 billionaire owners running an overgrown children’s contest with contract labor and wildly variable degrees of competent management. You can opt out. It’s legal.
The NFL indirectly pays Phil Simms real American money to talk for a living, and allows owners like the Maras to suggest that there is an acceptable level of spousal abuse — and that this is America’s most popular sport should depress you. It should give you full-on Johnny Cash-singing-Hurt levels of depression if you pump enough of it into your eyeballs every Sunday.
If that is how you feel about the NFL, then lower ratings could make you happy. Then again, ratings are down for the EPL, too, the actual World’s Most Valuable Sports Enterprise, and for most other sports, and for TV — and somewhere along the way something like one out of every 10 people watching content/programming/things on TV just up and disappeared.
Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?
Tom Townsend: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking.
I don’t really watch that much TV anymore. For instance: The Red Wedding was one of my favorite moments in recent television history. I’ve never seen it, but it was amazing. Robb Stark murdered at his own wedding! And Talisa Stark’s murder! So vicious, so cruel, and yet so Thrones. I could barely watch the GIF, but I did, because that’s how it is with this show. I don’t want to have others vicariously watch it and curate it for me, but it — and the hundreds, if not thousands, of people watching it for me — just keep pulling me back.
In fact, I haven’t watched an episode of Game of Thrones past the first season. I still have a fairly good handle on what’s happening, though — enough to converse, not dishonestly, about where I think the show’s going and which characters might survive for longer than three seconds before being set on fire. Same with The Walking Dead, a show I’m definitely smarter for not watching, since letting others watch it for me lets me see the big scenes in excerpts without having to wade through the show’s garbage plot lines.
Norman Reedus is so good on that show — at least in the clips I’ve seen posted on the internet. Simply incredible.
I do watch some shows in their entirety. Some even get the full, now vintage “seated prone on the couch and watching almost intently” treatment (Atlanta on FX, for instance). But otherwise, there’s a lot of content to watch, and even more to just be generally aware of out there. Too much, in fact, which is why I can happily farm out that work in exchange for my careful social media reportage on the three or four things I can actually pay attention to in a week.
This is the case for complex content produced for nonlinear entertainment. It’s a struggle, even with an entire system set up to allow me to consume it at any time I like. There is nothing easier than watching television in 2016. There is also nothing else you will never, ever be able to catch up with because by the time you finish watching something you have missed three other vitally important and critically acclaimed things you should be watching, and that’s before you get to the other things you really need to watch, like the critically acclaimed Halt and Catch Fire, which every smart and tasteful and interesting person on my timeline seems to love.
I am never going to get around to watching Halt and Catch Fire.
The EPL’s ratings are, for the moment, down about 19% on the year. There is no election year and no possibly mythical counterprotest/boycott of the EPL to blame for the dive in ratings. Ken Early of The Irish Timeswrote a piece on Oct. 17 about this mysterious swan dive in viewership and came to two conclusions:
a.) That people are illegally streaming soccer, which yeah.
b.) That “people like everything about football except watching it.”
I like both of these. The first assumes people don’t care about large corporations and will steal from them. This is fair, since the reverse is true and illegal streaming has gone from something that used to require skill to something that just requires a lot of closing pop-up ads for MacKeeper and online gambling sites. NOT THAT I KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE.
The second is way, way more interesting because I don’t think he’s quite right here. People love watching football, and sports in general, but the method of consumption is now just mobile and variable. The dream shown in a thousand phone ads — “I can watch the game on my phone!” — is real. Usually a second person is watching with this person in ads, fist-pumping along in a hoodie because the future can’t be lonely, ever.
Yet that’s not what people are doing. The drop in ratings is real, and it’s most likely permanent by the measures of what people consider to be television ratings. There is instead an entire segment of the population dropping out completely to watch games through social media. This happens on Facebook, Twitter, and sure, maybe via an app, but it happens without ever skating over most of what cable providers and leagues consider their turf. A fan can ping-pong back and forth on their phone, do other things, and still multitask their way through an entire day’s games without missing much.
As Early writes, “It has become possible to watch nothing, and yet miss nothing.”
This goes beyond the issue of whether fantasy sports and RedZone have siphoned off a too-large segment of the NFL’s fan base. Once fans realize there is another way to keep up without ever watching, one that’s more involved than a box score, with video and and GIFs and all the discussion and supplemental content you need minus the actual tedium of wading through a hundred ads a game? They’re gone. They are not coming back, and, in time, will get even more efficient at paring down the already paltry amount of action.
Case in point: The epic 6-6 Sunday Night Football tie between the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks. This game was hilarious, and I did not watch it. Instead, I went to sleep for a while and experienced it through:
When u finaly get ur hands on the report and there are 28 redacted pages https://t.co/t2P6apyr8S— PFTCommenter (@PFTCommenter) October 24, 2016
And that’s ... that’s about all I needed or wanted from Cardinals/Seahawks. It’s not that I won’t watch the NFL, or don’t completely care. I do. I care exactly enough to want to know what happened, and not enough to do any of the work involved. People do this work for me all over the place, and it is all free, and I can consume it and be just aware enough all while still having the time to watch other, shorter things I enjoy way more than four hours of soul-deadening NFL football.
Even if I do enjoy NFL football, I can watch RedZone, the show where the entire program is made of touchdowns. You can entertain blind rhetorical swipes at why the NFL is now undeniably bad: whether the rules, which have always been arbitrary and dumb, are now unacceptably arbitrary and dumb; whether the “quality of play” has declined, as if that’s anything sports fans cared about or could even recognize; or whether the league allowing athletes to protest has sparked a completely unsubstantiated backlash from invisible viewers. Or you could consider that the mode of delivery is now different, and years of the sports populace becoming internet savvy have resulted in a bulk departure from the traditional means of content delivery.
As for what the NFL does to combat it? Um ... nothing. It can’t do anything about this at all. It can try retrograde legal tactics, which is what every aging monopoly does on the advice of its attorneys. The NFL still believes it is a rentier-class entity, capable of living off the rent from its properties. To it, a GIF or slice of excerpted content is an unpaid parking fee, because the NFL is something you rent. The NFL is a product, not the mysterious eye-catcher you might call “content.” This is, to some extent, something it’s already doing.
The NBA, meanwhile, is the landlord of the future. It’s a very different league with very different schedules and realities, sure, but it knows you can’t watch every game. Hell, the NBA knows you might not watch an entire game all season — one of the reasons it’s mostly fine with content sliced up however you care to do it across multiple social platforms. The NBA does not do this out of the charity of its superior heart. It runs a business of attraction and personalities, and simply wants you in the door as a consumer. If you happen to do a little bit of accidental free marketing by being a fan, well, bless your heart for that. Adam Silver appreciates it.
That may be assuming a lot, but the NBA at least seems to understand the slippery nature of its own presence as a content provider, not a proprietary league. You have to remain part of the conversation, and part of doing that is realizing that visibility means a lot more than just ratings. You want people to know what’s happening in the NBA even if they aren’t a fan because that kind of transcendent cultural relevance gets you the things leagues and their players blossom under: huge TV contracts, endorsements, and the continued giddy partnership with corporate America’s advertising dollars.
Speaking of cultural relevance, I am so excited for this. Jon Snow! And Daenerys! Working together with Tyrion! This is huge. I have never seen this show and read only Matt Ufford’s recaps on SB Nation instead. It’s gonna be amazing when someone tells me about it.
Welcome to The Top Whatever, Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of only the teams he feels like ranking.
Beat LSU, 10-0.
It sucks so, so much how little you can change. LSU came into this game like a New You rolling into the year.
They had a new attitude! (Ed Orgeron, who sounds more like a talking rock tumbler than ever.)
A chance for redemption! (For Leonard Fournette, the god-like running back whose mortal efforts against Alabama are the bad data points in an otherwise amazing career.)
New diet! (If it’s like Ed’s family days, it’d be“boudin balls, ribs, dirty rice, [and] shrimp”.) (Maybe that didn’t help, to be honest, especially if eaten before the game.)
Yet when faced with the challenge of Alabama, a team LSU has now lost to six straight times, New You quickly looked a lot like The Same Old You. Alabama’s horrifying supremacy along the line of scrimmage meant Fournette started nearly every play in the backfield with at least one defender wrapped around him like a weighted vest. Their defensive backs — the ones NFL scouts are wary of sometimes because, Alabama’s coaching makes them better than they might actually be — knew LSU’s routes and plays as well as the Tiger receivers did.
This isn’t to make fun of you for trying. This is the best effort Alabama’s gotten all year. LSU’s defense was brilliant, just flat damn brilliant, holding Alabama to 16 first downs and a meager 10 points. The problem coming into 2016 for LSU was not having a quarterback, or much of a passing game, meaning they’d eventually play their biggest games with one hand tied behind their back.
LSU had six first downs and scored zero points. LSU hasn’t changed much from what they were, other than tactically, because a new coach really can’t change much over the course of a season. You have what you have, frustrating as that might be. LSU can’t pass, is one-dimensional, and has a fantastic defense. That’s how you get a 10-0 loss at home.
Worse yet for the SEC and perhaps beyond, that applies to everyone. Alabama was the country’s best team coming into 2016. And here, at the nub end of the year going into November, they haven’t changed much, either. They are, boringly and predictably and frustratingly, still the best college football team in America.
TL;DR: Doom. Doom in all directions. Roll Tide.
Made Syracuse a member of the ten-thousandaires club by helping them put four zeroes on the board, 54-0.
It’s hard out there for the Orange, y’all. Year one for a new coaching staff sometimes means beating Virginia Tech unexpectedly, then losing your quarterback in the first quarter against a Clemson team that was probably going to decimate you anyway.
Deshaun Watson did leave with a shoulder injury, but he says he’s fine. He likely could have continued if the game weren’t already a gigantic, honking blowout.
Watson, by the way, acknowledged the injury by pointing at his shoulder with zero expression on his face, after having two people fall on him. You probably would have given up on the idea of doing anything for six weeks. Watson just sort of pointed at it and walked to the bench. Football players are not normal people.
59-3 over Maryland. There’s really no reason to watch Michigan games after they send fullback Khalid Hill — aka “The Hammering Panda” — in to announce to the opponent that, yes, this game is over. He’s their finishing move, Harbaugh’s Tombstone Piledriver, and after he lumbers through your cringing defensive line for a score, the game has ended. Michigan’s scrimmage has begun.
Hill rolled into the end zone like a lost water buffalo with 3:52 left in the second quarter. Congratulations on making Michigan play almost a full half of football, Maryland. That’s more than some teams have managed this year, and you should feel pretty good about yourself. Go snort a celebratory line of Old Bay on me.
The Huskies were sitting at 21-20 with Cal with around six minutes left in the second quarter. It was exactly what Cal would have wanted: to be basically tied about halfway through.
Washington thought that was cute.
John Ross III went off last night... pic.twitter.com/Luc8TTISSh— Football Posts (@FballPosts) November 6, 2016
That happened before the two-touchdown flurry to make it 35-20, but that’s the point illustrated in a single play. The Huskies can blow up on you like that, and turn a whiff of upset threat into a 66-27 blowout.
UW held Cal’s prolific offense under 20 first downs. That means something, as does Washington ending a game with Cal before the Bears could drag late-night viewers into yet another five-hour shootout.
The Huskies are the West Coast monsters who blow opponents out convincingly and who care about your sleep schedule. See, they love you, East Coasters. Love them back.
A 52-7 sleeper over Boston College in a week full of these types of games somehow doesn’t register much, though Lamar Jackson ripping off a NICE NICE NICE IT’S THE INTERNET NUMBER SEE 69-yard touchdown run to start the game kept you interested for a while.
Oh, and this:
Lamar Jackson is David Ruffin and Lamar University are the Temptations pic.twitter.com/0fc0PpOFEX— DJ ZaddyTory (@DJAudiTory) November 5, 2016
ESPN is running out of ways to describe Jackson’s season, too. He put up seven TDs on the day, which is something everyone just expects him to do now. The Louisville defense held Boston College to 57 yards rushing, which, as you’ll recall, is less than Jackson had on his first touchdown run of the game. It went for 69 yards.
They’re real good, their only loss came to top-four team, and they have helmets shinier and redder than polished Skittles. It’s amazing how likable this team is, even when you remember who’s coaching them.
6. OHIO STATE
Destroyed Nebraska, 62-3. Maybe Nebraska should consider just ... not playing Ohio State for a while. It’s not working for them, since Ohio State has scored 60-plus points in the last two matchups, while the Huskers managed an early field goal in this one and just decided, “You know, these points are good for another two weeks, and we should just save them for Minnesota and Maryland.” Kudos for deciding that early, Nebraska.
The big uptick for Ohio State here is a functional passing game. Nebraska’s pass defense had been a top-25 unit coming into the game, and J.T. Barrett threw for four TDs and 290 yards after a stretch of games in which he sometimes struggled to get to 100 yards total. Getting the ball to running back Curtis Samuel, who had 209 total yards and two receiving TDs, seems to be a great idea. Keep doing that, Ohio State!
This is a thing you have to say, because sometimes Ohio State just decides to win games in the hardest way possible by not giving its running backs touches. A running back killed Urban Meyer’s grandaddy in a botched jewel heist in Yuma in 1952! This is the only explanation I’ve ever had for this weird tendency.
Ohio State had 34 first downs and held the ball for a galling 37 minutes. Everything hurts this week, Nebraska, and with reason.
7. WESTERN MICHIGAN?
Sure, if you got this far down the page: undefeated Western Michigan is the best team in the nation. This is their coach, P.J. Fleck, when he was with the San Francisco 49ers, and IS THAT FROSTED HAIR?
It’s not, btw. But I want to believe. FROST THE BOAT.
TWO-LOSS TEAMS WHO COULD SNEAK INTO THE PICTURE
Let me finish this coffee before we get into fanfic I write for your two-loss team.
The Top Whatever is Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of a fluctuating number of college football teams.
Standard slaughter of Mississippi State, 51-3.
The fun part was turning it on, seeing it was 17-0, and turning it off the minute Alabama’s defensive line caved in Mississippi State’s offensive line on three straight plays. There’s a lot of interesting football to watch, and there’s no point in watching any Alabama this year, because I can just put on YouTube videos of buildings being demolished and seals being flipped in the air by killer whales whenever I want.
You’re not even playing the same game, Alabama, and it’s killing all possible interest I have in you. Watching you is like being force-fed foie gras and champagne. I grow to hate it and crave the taste of mediocre things. You’ve given me the best of everything, Alabama — the grandeur of Tim Williams, a freshman quarterback who can pass for 300 and run for 100 yards, the perfect monstrosity of Jonathan Allen — and I’m ungrateful, like a trash person would be, for not wanting this.
God, I’m the worst, Alabama. It’s my fault, not yours. What I want is Iowa — trash-heap Iowa, incapable of scoring or doing much of anything consistently, shelling out shovels of money to a good coach who doesn’t really deserve great money — beating Michigan. I want flawed Pitt, which got blown out by Miami, surging and beating Clemson with a transfer QB and a kicker named “Blewitt.” I crave uncertain greatness and great mediocrity, Alabama.
I’m saying: It’s not your fault, and if people go to sleep on you in 2016, it’s because we had too much of you, and are now grumpy with indigestion.
My god, Iowa. Could you have put up a more Iowa-ish masterpiece of an Iowa game? Counting up points to 14 from a safety, acting less as a football team and more of an 11-man spike strip to Michigan’s runaway 18-wheeler of a team, and getting crucial breaks because your punter fell ass over teakettle and drew a targeting foul, then later drew two other penalties?
That team beat you, Michigan, and you shouldn’t even feel bad about it. Kirk Ferentz is clearly worth every penny of that gigantic contract we all make fun of because ... well honestly, because I don’t know if there’s anyone else in the world who could have beaten Michigan 14-13 like that. There’s only one man who can make a giant trip over a stack of hoarded pennies.
Most people would have Ohio State here, and that’s fine. Louisville sputtered and rolled out a turnover-heavy clanker of a game before finding 34 points in the fourth quarter in a deceptive 44-12 dismissal of Wake Forest. They still have Lamar Jackson, and in a direct comparison of the two, that’s why Louisville is a notch ahead.
Pitt was so, so overdue for a game like this: three close losses on the season, a run game capable of dominating anyone, and the aching need for something like a statement game after a disastrous loss to Miami.
To do it with QB Nathan Peterman is even funnier, since prior to this game, Pitt had been bludgeoning their way through games with running back James Conner. Someday when Peterman is leaving the insurance firm after a long day of staring at spreadsheets, he’ll remind his co-workers about the time he beat South Carolina Governor Deshaun Watson at football.
3. OHIO STATE
Or call them 2c, or whatever. The point of the Top Whatever is to just get an adequate group of four or so, and this is more than adequate, Ohio State fans. This Maryland game was very similar to the MSU-Alabama game in that I might have watched about 10 minutes of it before going, “Oh look, yes, this sample size is large enough,” then turning to something with indefinite outcomes.
But do not accuse the Buckeyes of not filling out the paperwork with ferocity. Seeing Ohio State had 22 more first downs than Maryland makes my calves hurt, just thinking about how tired the Terps’ defensive line must be. THEY’RE BIG MEN, OHIO STATE. DON’T MAKE THEM RUN SO LONG FOR SO LITTLE. AT LEAST GIVE THEM A SNACK OR SOMETHING AFTER THE GAME. THEY GET SO HUNGRY.
Lost to Pitt 43-42 on a last-minute field goal because they could not get 1 yard on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 clock-running situations. Also, Watson threw the ball 70 times.
The problem with Clemson, besides vague, “This is a team on a season-long success hangover” type explanations, is in those sentences. The secondary, thought to be a concern before the season thanks to losses to the draft, is still a concern. The run game hasn’t been consistent enough to carry them through games, and when that happens, it’s hard to not max out Watson.
He can do that and win almost all of the time, because Watson is a marvel and a mutant and a special talent and everything you want your quarterback to be. He also can’t play DB, or take an endless amount of hits to diversify Clemson’s run game, especially after he left the Syracuse game with a shoulder injury.
Aaaaaand unless you want to believe players heal instantly and defy human physiology, this is that time of the year when everyone is kind of hurt. Watson probably isn’t too banged up in the sense of it affecting his passing, but in a conference game down the stretch, on two straight plays, Wayne Gallman got the ball. 2015’s Watson might have had a shot.
RIGHT HERE, YES RIGHT HERE AT THE GATE AND WAITING TO GET BACK IN, IS MICHIGAN
Lost to Iowa and still control their own destiny, despite finally meeting a team that could make them look one-dimensional on offense. That might not improve, with the reported loss of starting QB Wilton Speight to injury, but Michigan still has the obvious tiebreaker sitting there with Ohio State. They wouldn’t lose to anyone else on the schedule, would they, since there’s only ...
... oh no. I can’t say you’ll lose to Indiana, Michigan. But you know how Chaos Team works. Playing this team in football is a lot like drinking too much on a Tuesday: it’ll hurt, you might want to throw up at times while it’s happening, and you’ll feel it for the rest of the week even after surviving it.
MAYBE SORTA KINDA OUT OF THE WHOLE THING EVEN WITH ONE LOSS IS WASHINGTON
The strength of schedule left UW little margin. After a 26-13 loss to USC, though, it hamstrings their Playoff chances in a serious way, and that’s before they finish out against the Pac-12’s only undefeated team in the Apple Cup.
Porter Gustin and Adoree’ Jackson destroyed a lot of what Washington tried to do offensively, so much so that Jackson could comfortably joke about getting smoked one-on-one by John Ross for a long TD.
If Washington State beats Washington and then beats, say, Colorado in the Pac-12 title game? The Pac-12 champion would have a loss to an FCS team and to Boise State, which would both be sort of perfect for a.) a Mike Leach team, and b.) a quirky conference whose superpowers all failed at once.
WHAT ABOUT A TWO-LOSS BIG 12 TEAM CREEPING BACK INTO IT—
No, not without a championship game, which — barring some very weird upsets — could get us some solid one-loss teams clean into the Playoff.
This week was fun. It changed little about the basic barriers to entry presented by the Playoff committee. Winning in a 13th game still matters to them, and the Big 12 Championship doesn’t appear to be on the 2016 schedule, does it?
(West Virginia does still have just one loss, though.)
I will give them the 1998 Tulane Green Wave Trophy for the nobly undefeated and ignored mid-major champion.
Like I said, in a year when things feel so preordained for Alabama to win again, you have to find your joys in their shadow. Fortunately, Gundy’s hair is a magical forest plant that requires no sunlight.
This is the Top Whatever, Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of only the college football teams that need to be ranked at this time.
Beat the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga by [SCORE WHATEVER IT DOESN’T MATTER]. You know what we should talk about here? How underrated Chattanooga is as a city. The hometown of Samuel L. Jackson has so much to offer: a great kids’ museum, beautiful parks, Rock City, and the majesty of Lookout Mountain, a natural marvel providing beautiful views of the surrounding area. All that, and it’s home to a burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene I definitely didn’t just make up to see if you would fact check me or notice that the Chattanooga Tourism Council paid me $500 to write about what a great destination it is.
Alabama is the best team in the nation, and Chattanooga is the Scenic City that’s just missing one thing: you. Take a visit today, and discover Chattanooga.*
*Would I rather write fake copy for Chattanooga tourism than review the useless transactions of Alabama’s useless November scrimmage week game? Nick Saban’s mad.
Nick Saban sounds like my dad before he told me to grab a switch circa 1994. pic.twitter.com/TQkMFqXJaI— Andrew HammondAP (@ahammsportsgeek) November 20, 2016
Ooh, everyone, look, Saban’s mad, that never happens, wow. Visit the International Towing & Recovery Museum, located only in beautiful Chattanooga, Tennessee.
2. OHIO STATE
Won a bitter, mean game over Michigan State, 17-16.
Oh, you mean 3-8 Michigan State?
Don’t ever underestimate the rage of a miserable team met late in the season. The 2-8 Iowa State came into a game versus Texas Tech and took out every ounce of frustration on the Red Raiders, 66-10. Kansas — that was 1-9 Kansas — beat Texas in overtime for the first time since the Great Depression. Oregon had three wins going into its game against Utah. The Ducks left with four wins, avenging a 62-20 blowout in Autzen a year ago and decimating the Utes’ hopes of playing for a Pac-12 Championship.
The point is that in crap weather, with nothing to lose, and with a stingy game plan on a stingy day, the Spartans are dangerous as hell. How much good football did they have to play? Around 58 minutes’ worth. When did they run out of good football? After about 58:30, when Tyler O’Connor threw a ghastly interception to end the game, reminding everyone that Michigan State is a bad team that had almost one entire good game in it.
P.S: J.T. Barrett still has these weird games where he doesn’t throw for more than 100 yards and nothing in the passing game really works. Is this different from any other week with Ohio State? No. Is this a point of concern? I have no idea because Ohio State has won games in a lot of different ways this year and doesn’t always need Barrett to be anything beyond serviceable through the air, especially on a brutal day like this.
35-13 over Wake Forest. Fine, just fine. Deshaun Watson didn’t get hurt and threw no picks, and Clemson prevented Wake from making it weird.
That’s a real thing, because as Louisville found out last week, Wake Forest is more than capable of giving you at least three quarters of weird.
Most importantly, Wayne Gallman ran for real yardage, something Clemson needs if it wants to avoid maxing out the warranty on Watson. Watson threw 70 times last week against Pitt. This sounds cool, but you definitely don’t want it to happen because that cool-sounding thing ended up with Clemson losing to Pitt.
20-10 over Indiana.
WHOA. BUDDY. Jim Harbaugh, you’re gonna need some Bactine for those scratches. We told you about Indiana football: It goes for the eyes and tender bits first, and it doesn’t stop until it gets tired. Fortunately, it’s gonna get tired and give you a chance to pull it off your face and throw it into a river.
The chosen Chaos Team of the Big Ten tore up Michigan for a while, but Michigan’s defense and run game broke the Hoosiers. This is all fine in a game when the Wolverines were missing their starting QB, Wilton Speight, and playing an Indiana team with a pesky defense and a propensity for keeping games close. (Winning them, no; keeping them close, yes.)
However, this takes us all back to square one with what this Wolverines team is: one-dimensional offensively, fearsome defensively, and sometimes able to do Jabrill Peppers things. They might not have Speight against Ohio State and might have to start John O’Korn again. O’Korn passed for 59 yards against Indiana and looked very much like someone making his first start of the season.
This is, to put it mildly, a suboptimal situation. Michigan should hope for snow, freezing rain, or another of those horrendous weather situations Big Ten fans are fond of thinking about while stroking themselves sensually in front of the bathroom mirror, wearing nothing but a balaclava and three pairs of socks.
What does an SEC fan think when he/she sees this at a football game? pic.twitter.com/vOMFwK1MZK— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) November 20, 2016
The answer to that question is: I’d have to wear socks for that. And fuck socks, if we’re being honest about socks. They’re little knit coffins for the feet.
Cold weather doesn’t make you any smarter or tougher. If it made you smarter, Minnesota would be the smartest team on the planet. If you’ve seen the Gophers manage the clock at the end of a game, you know THIS IS DEEPLY UNTRUE.
If cold weather made you any tougher, Saban would have his team sitting in a cryo tank for three hours a day. He would have a staff of 15 coaches devoted to cold-weather conditioning. Six of them would be former head coaches or FBS school coordinators. None of this would be listed on Alabama’s roster; neither would the actual Yeti employed as a strength and conditioning coach. Only one part of this paragraph would be fiction if cold weather had anything to do with toughness.
If Michigan beats Alabama in the Playoff, Alabama will actually do all of this, right down to the coaching Yeti.
Bad weather does, however, improve your chances of winning with a run game alone. Helps to have a touchdown-hoarding fullback who posts pictures of himself making snow angels, too. Pray for misery at kickoff with Ohio State, Michigan.
Still on track for a Pac-12 title shot after a 44-18 win over Arizona State. All they have to do now is beat Washington State in the Apple Cup and then beat either Colorado or USC in the Pac-12 title game.
Washington will need to win out to make the Playoff and avoid being caught in a pack of two-loss teams trying to butt their heads in the door.
This being the Pac-12, Washington will undoubtedly lose, everyone will finish with two or three losses, and everyone not directly involved will find it hilarious. Reminder: It’s tragedy when I cut my finger, and it’s comedy when everyone in the Pac-12 falls into a sewer and ends up in the Sun Bowl at once.
TWO-LOSS TEAMS THAT, I DUNNO, MAYBE THEY GET IN? CRAZIER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED. IT’S A BIG WORLD, AND I LIKE TO IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES SOMETIMES
Penn State. Victors, 39-0, over Rutgers, but who isn’t?
PSU holds a tiebreaker over Ohio State in the Big Ten title scrum, something it earned by blocking a field goal for a TD on a night when Ohio State dominated in every major statistical category. Football is the worst game in the world sometimes.
Oklahoma. Got all over West Virginia early in a steady snowfall and emerged with a 56-28 blowout.
There might be other two-loss conference champions with more quality on their resumes, i.e., wins in conference championship games. It would require granting the Playoff committee some imagination and charity to put a two-loss Big 12 team into the Playoff. Committees on the whole don’t have a whole lot of imagination or charity.
Oh, and they have to beat Oklahoma State first, which won’t be easy.
Oklahoma State. Yawning while pawing away a desperate TCU in a 31-6 win.
Gundy keeps the CMU-wasn't-a-loss train rolling: "You don't get to 10 wins very often."— Kyle Fredrickson (@kylefredrickson) November 19, 2016
Please stop saying you only have one loss, Oklahoma State. There are so many things to give you credit for: yet another nine-win season (Mike Gundy’s seventh in Stillwater), letting Gundy grow his boss-ass mullet out ...
... and keeping it all together despite the coach and the school’s biggest booster openly disliking each other.
The loss in question came to Central Michigan, and it came on the final play, a play that should not have by rule happened at all, a play that got an officiating crew suspended and let the Chippewas throw a game-winning TD. That sucks immensely, Oklahoma State, but remember that you were in a game-ending situation with a middling MAC team. DON’T EVER BE IN THAT SITUATION IF YOU’RE A TEAM THAT MIGHT LATER DECIDE YOU HAVE A CASE FOR A PLAYOFF.
You also lost to a six-win Baylor, and you also have to beat Oklahoma in Bedlam, something Oklahoma State doesn’t tend to do very often. The Cowboys have beaten OU just twice since 2002, which feels wrong, but seems right, because Bedlam is the most inaccurately named rivalry outside of Stanford-Cal. Big Game is, like, a Medium Game at best in terms of rivalries.
Florida. Outlasted LSU in a 16-10 win that ended with a heroic and desperate goal-line stand. Would have to beat Florida State and Alabama in consecutive weeks. This seems statistically improbable, and when have statistics or predictions been wrong in 2016 ahahhaahhahaaaaaa nope not happening nope next NOPE NOPE WE’RE NOT DISCUSSING IT
Colorado. Triumphed over Washington State, 38-24. Colorado’s odds are long to get into the Playoff. However, the Buffs have quarterback Sefo Liufau, and after watching him play over the last two years, I would follow him into hell wearing only asbestos underwear.
USC. Another super-outside shot kind of conversation, but they did just beat UCLA, 36-14, are a completely different team than they were at the start of the season, and who knows? I have Colorado here, and before the season started, you would not have considered that to be even possible.
ROW THE BOAT
Western Michigan. Undefeated, beat Buffalo 38-0, row the boat. Won’t get into the Playoff and shouldn’t, given its strength of schedule, but still: Boats, you should row them.
This is The Top Whatever, Spencer Hall’s weekly ranking of only the teams he feels like ranking today.
1. OHIO STATE
They’re No. 1 this week because they survived the best game I watched all year* and now sit with one loss on the year, a roster I’m pretty sure could ball with anyone in America for 60 minutes, and only a lack of a Big Ten championship standing between them and the Playoff.
Ohio State looked bad on offense for much of the game and still won, because at their core, the Buckeyes are built around their merciless offensive line. And when you are built around a mean-ass line, you can afford to grapple while you wait for something to break. Look bad? Fine, keep hammering away. Look good? Cool, keep hammering away. In the midst of all that, eventually J.T. Barrett will make a play. Eventually he’ll get loose, probably at a time you can least afford it.
As for officiating breaks that may have played a crucial role in how the game played out: maybe you shouldn’t let that be the margin you need. The problem is not that the rope broke. It’s that you ended up hanging off the cliff in the first place, Michigan. Officials will be human and make mistakes. Mistakes like fumbling at the goal line, for instance.
P.S. I don’t really know what I’d do as a Michigan fan after that game, other than curse life’s beauty and pain and crawl into a snow cave for four months with a waterproof volume of Camus and enough food to last the winter. The bowl game will somehow probably be against Florida, and that’s an automatic win, because Michigan never loses to Florida in bowl games. Go sleep and wake up for the spring game. Jim’s got this.
* Okay, maybe it wasn’t the most fun I had all year watching a game. That goes to Arizona State-Arizona, where a broke-ass, undermanned, 2-9 team with zero hope blew the Sun Devils off the field. It wasn’t a good game, but if you’re going to have something like a positive ending, it’s getting your third win in an error-filled night game that denies your opponent a bowl game. It’s just fun to watch Rich Rodriguez play crab in a bucket and yell, “YOU’RE IN HERE WITH ME, TODD GRAHAM,” because rivalry games are about petty.
30-12 victors over Auburn. Putting the Tide at No. 2 just to remind everyone that they only have to play an enfeebled Florida to finish undefeated and only had to beat an Auburn team without a functioning quarterback to win a rivalry game. Nick Saban is a hoarder whose dominance is, at this point, killing the economy of the SEC and reducing it to a monopoly. Antitrust legislation for football teams will never be a real thing, but it really should be, at this point.
All the talent in the SEC is kept in Tuscaloosa, and we should redistribute it to the people forcibly. That’s Governor Ed “a whole cow in every pot” Orgeron’s campaign strategy. It got him elected, didn’t it?
It is cool that Alabama’s offense right now is “throw it to someone 3 yards out of the backfield and see what happens,” because a.) it infuriates Alabama traditionalists by working, and b.) it is entertaining to watch ArDarius Stewart humiliate defenders in the open field. Jalen Hurts threw two interceptions, a number that doesn’t matter, because nothing matters if you’re playing Alabama’s defense. No one ran for more than a hundred yards on them in the month of November; no one has scored a rushing TD on them since Oct. 15.
[/futile hand gestures]
[/walks away and patiently waits for time to destroy the things I am so bored with]
Ruined the happiness and well-being of South Carolina, 56-7. Here is a short recap.
Mike Williams, talented football person. https://t.co/2iyyKBjNjD— Shakin the Southland (@STSouthland) November 27, 2016
South Carolina DB Jamarcus King is clinging to Williams like a rodeo clown to the back of a bull. We salute you, Jamarcus. Like your team, you never gave up, even when it really made sense for you to do so.
Clemson will now play Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship. If the Tigers beat the Hokies, Clemson is an easy selection for the Playoff. This is not only because Clemson’s been good all year, but because the ACC has been good overall, and not just from a quality perspective. (They were 3-1 against the SEC yesterday. Did you hear that? You should repeat that to an SEC fan.)
It’s also because the ACC’s been a blast to watch. They’ve had good-to-great QB play across the board, from Mitch Trubisky to Lamar Jackson to Jerod Evans to emerging playmakers like Deondre Francois. Hell, even Pitt’s quarterback, Nathan Peterman, had his moments. (Like throwing five TDs in an upset of Clemson, for instance). Even the cellar-dwellers of the Atlantic Division are entertaining and/or improving. The ACC’s diverse in style of play, and not some monochromatic slab of pro-style and middling half-assed spread offense like SomE Conferences have. It’s all over the map, and even has a bizarro triple-option team.
So if we’re fairly confident about putting Clemson in the Playoff, it’s not just because of their resume. The ACC as a whole, after years of suffering ironic praise at the hands of myself and anyone else watching, put on entertaining programming this year. And I’m not here to be bored. If I was, I’d watch more 2016 SEC football.
45-17 dominance over Washington State that was over so fast, you scarcely had time to react to the abundant asskicking. Even the Huskies seemed shocked at how fast it happened, up 28-3 after the first quarter, and with none of those scoring drives taking longer than four minutes. Mike Leach got so discombobulated, he called four straight run plays in the red zone. It got THAT bad.
That’s fine by the Huskies. It means they got to rest starters, prep for the Pac-12 Championship against Colorado, and marvel at the wreckage while waiting for everyone to decide they’re worthy of a Playoff slot. Which, yeah, they would be worth of it as a one-loss conference champ. That is no given, because as I have to remind you every week, one of the few genuinely delightful things about the 2016 season is that Colorado is a good team.
TEAMS THAT MIGHT GET INTO THE PLAYOFF IF EVERYONE ELSE FALLS ON THEIR FACES AND/OR IF EVERYONE GETS BORED AND DECIDES TO MAKE THINGS HARDER THAN THEY HAVE TO BE
Penn State. The beneficiaries of the year’s weirdest major upset, their win over Ohio State, the Nittany Lions could make the Playoff if the committee decides to value a conference championship over a non-conference loss to Pitt. The committee, by the way, already considers a loss to Pitt perfectly fine; Clemson has one, and it hasn’t affected their chances. Losing to Pitt is cool in 2016; it’s what the kids are doing, and it’s great. That is the greatest compliment to what a great job Pat Narduzzi has done: Pitt is now everyone’s acceptable, Playoff-enabling, quality loss.
Wisconsin. Might be a step behind Penn State in the longshot division, because they weren’t blessed enough to lose to Pitt. PITT FOOTBALL: WE BEAT THE TEAM THAT BEAT YOUR TEAM, PROBABLY.
Colorado. Needs to win and have everyone else lose and hope someone on the committee has actually watched CU play this year, and that probably hasn’t happened, so no, this is probably not happening. Sefo Liufau still deserves the People’s Heisman, even if the Buffs only have a 0.00000001 percent shot at getting in the Playoff.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Both teams could get into the Playoff, but it requires some lobbying, and a vivid imagination capable of pretending Oklahoma State did not lose at home to a 6-6 MAC team. If you want to be told it can and should happen, and that Bedlam is just like a Big 12 Championship, I am here to tell you that, because I want you to believe what you want to believe because it feels good.
Michigan. Sort of feel like we’re getting deep into the same hole you get into when you get 32 steps down in the order of presidential succession, and it becomes like:
He scored all these touchdowns. We piled them up. All 51. Marvel at ‘em.
Set our eyes on fire
He scored all these touchdowns.
We piled them up.
Marvel at ‘em.
Let’s start here by going to the ending. The first score of Lamar Jackson’s 2016 year will be a rushing TD. Lamar Jackson is a dual-threat quarterback who, after this opening TD, will rush for another 21 TDs in long-, middle-, and short-yardage situations. He will cover 1,538 yards running the ball alone in 2016, often juking defenders off their feet despite being 6’3, 205 pounds. He will carry the ball more than Nick Chubb of UGA, Saquon Barkley of Penn State, LJ Scott of Michigan State, or Royce Freeman of Oregon.
This is Jackson’s first rushing TD, and if he was evaluated on his rushing totals alone — i.e., if we just pretended Jackson was a running back — he would be ninth in the nation in yards per game, and tied for third in total TDs for the season. Jackson will average more yards per carry than Mark Ingram, Tim Tebow, or Derrick Henry in their Heisman seasons. He will outrush and outscore 2010 Cam Newton in every category — total TDs, yards per carry, and total yardage — on 30 fewer attempts.
If Jackson was a running back alone, he would be in consideration as one of the best backs in the country.
Lamar Jackson is a quarterback.
6:4913-yard pass to Reggie Bonnafon
3:4724-yard pass to Jeremy Smith
12:0516-yard pass to Brandon Radcliff
6:2720-yard pass to L.J. Scott
2:5932-yard pass to James Quick
0:051-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
Oh, he didn’t play the second half of this game, and finished with eight TDs. Yes, this was against Charlotte, but try scoring eight TDs in a regulation half in a video game and you’ll get a good start towards measuring the blast radius Jackson is capable of leaving on a football field.
14:4472-yard pass to James Quick
4:1113-yard run (Syracuse defense broken; Jackson sets ball on turf)
3:239-yard run (Yes: that run, after many fumbles and one actual long drive)
This is THAT run: the one Louisville puts on promotional material. The one you’ll see on the Heisman broadcast. The one that ran in a loop through your Twitter feed or on SportsCenter or on Facebook or whatever.
It is spectacular: Jackson, in the open field, hurdling Cordell Hudson of Syracuse. It needs some context, though. Correction: it gets a lot better when you remember the context.
This game aired on a Friday night, competing with nothing else. You probably weren’t going to watch Louisville-Syracuse on most Saturday nights. Syracuse felt like a 4-8 team with entertainment potential coming into the season, and it turned out to be very entertaining … and also 4-8 (with an upset of Virginia Tech).
However, on a Friday night you might just sack out in front of the TV and watch Louisville blow up Syracuse for a while. They did. Jackson threw a 72-yard bomb to James Quick to open the game, then followed it up one score later with a sidestepping, looping 72-yard run through the hapless Syracuse defense. It was spectacular, yes, but an anticipated kind of spectacular — like when you click play on a YouTube video entitled “Rhino versus tourist.” They led 28-0 before this score, with the game well and expectedly in hand.
*Note: we have to talk about Lamar Jackson’s productivity in insane ways, like “No, no, I mean on the next touchdown that quarter.”
The leap over Hudson, though? That’s just excessive. Flagrant. A grace note written in a thousand tiny little nahs. That’s the point where everyone watching realized they would watch this game, this meaningless early season game between two mismatched teams, until Louisville took Jackson out. Which it did, because Louisville a.) was leading, and didn’t want to risk him getting injured; and b.) decided Syracuse deserved only one half of that kind of work.
For the record: someone else later tried this on Hudson. Unfortunately for him, he was not Lamar Jackson.
Before you get to the score, please take a moment. Think of the defensive ends, safeties, and linebackers who had to deal with this all year long. The endless bootlegging and rollouts that actually meant something because the quarterback, in Louisville’s case, really could take off for 70 yards and a score, at any time. The designed QB runs, the plays where defenses lost a defender in coverage because someone — anyone — had to spy Jackson. The random moments of improvisation when Jackson, seeing nothing open downfield, decided to play hopscotch through your secondary.
In addition to all the other mean, confusing, but mostly NFL-standard plays in Bobby Petrino’s playbook, the Cardinals added the zone read last year to isolate defensive linemen who might think about crashing down too far into the backfield in pursuit of the ballcarrier.
You can defend this play. In fact, Florida State does a very good job of defending this goal-line zone read. The running back is met by a lineman, and three defenders all have eyes on him. In theory, they should close on the ball, and tackle the ballcarrier, and take this to another down.
Again: Nah. Jackson will lose you hogtied in a pig sty. Twice.
5:034-yard pass to Jaylen Smith
10:5771-yard to James Quick
11:108-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
5:0230-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
I know Marshall’s not good, but here Jackson notices his tight end Cole Hikutini in single coverage and just oh so open and —
— it’s right over the top and only where Hikutini could catch it. It’s pretty. I’m not trying to get you to believe Jackson is anything close to a finished project as a passer, I just want you to see something beautiful.
0:028-yard pass to Reggie Bonnafon
2:1951-yard pass to Jaylen Smith
11:208-yard pass to James Quick
Two things from a loss to Clemson, which you may remember only as “a loss,” and not as “Lamar Jackson almost singlehandedly brings Louisville back in a road game against a 2016 college football playoff team” …
One: That Jackson ended up passing for 3,390 yards and 30 TDs to 9 INTs — a huge leap over his production in 2015. That included booming deep passes off play-action, thrown into generous windows, but also a lot of the nibbling, dink/dunk short passes that get coaches cooing over proper reads and game management.
This is one. On 3rd and 7 with 1:56 to go in the third quarter and trailing 28-19, Louisville badly needs a first down. Clemson shows a blitz, then peels a lineman off into coverage at the snap. This is the zone blitz, some pretty standard NFL-level stuff, the pressure that killed the Run ‘n Shoot offense and often confuses college quarterbacks. It might have confused Jackson in 2015, actually.
Instead, Jackson recognizes it, and calmly and easily zips the ball out in the flat to his wideout Jaylen Smith for a huge first down. Tidy game management, a refusal to force things even in a big game, and recognition of coverage: all the sort of nice, respectable quarterback camp stuff that gets stiff NFL GMs excited.
Two: If this is too buttoned up for you, in the fourth quarter, Jackson drops back to pass, drifts left, and then lopes through the defense for a 15-yard first down that stops the clock in a late-game situation.
He also does the Walter Payton donkey kick/deadleg move at the end — so I must love him forever.
11:115-yard pass to Jaylen Smith
Note: 325 yards total offense in 24-14 win
5:2174-yard pass to Jaylen Smith
3:573-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
3:0916-yard pass to Jamari Staples
3:3615-yard pass to Jamari Staples
4:038-yard pass to Reggie Bonnafon
13:4710-yard pass to Reggie Bonnafon
0:1329-yard pass to Jaylen Smith
It’s on the road, and Louisville is down 25-24 to UVA. It happens. Clemson, in the same conference, came within a field goal of losing to NC State at home. Ohio State squeaked by Northwestern, 24-20, in Ohio Stadium. Washington only beat 3-9 Arizona, 28-21, and Alabama … let’s not talk about Alabama, or compare them to other college football teams right now. Let’s just not.
In 90 seconds, Louisville moves the ball 75 yards in eight plays for the winning score. Thirty-five of those yards come from Jackson running the ball, and 34 of them come through the air, including this 29-yarder for the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds left. Apologies to UVA fans for this graphic image.
Surely, later in film study, UVA’s secondary coach will just mutter the Serenity Prayer and slowly crush his laser pointer to shards in his hand.
9:0730-yard pass to James Quick
0:4844-yard pass to Jaylen Smith
14:4410-yard pass to James Quick
6:175-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
NOTE: Nothing to say … this is just a bloodbath.
4:052-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
10:0212-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
Jackson was sacked 11 times in this game. I was there. At the snap, on almost every single pass play, Jackson started his reads with at least one of his guards flying ass-first into his legs. On run plays, especially the designed run plays, Jackson began them by stepping out of the way of one of his linemen, or nearly running into one.
This is Jackson, dropping back to pass with 11:03 left in the second quarter about a half second after the snap.
That rushing ball of grey and red anger is Ed Oliver, a freshman five-star recruit who had three tackles for loss, two sacks, three pass breakups, and a forced fumble in this game. He could not be blocked, so on this play the Louisville offensive line made the sane decision to simply not even try.
The summary: sometimes even the best offensive player in the country gets his ass kicked. If you want to say Jackson had a bad game, look at the Wake Forest game, his first truly and completely off game of the year. Against Houston, Jackson was just a passenger on this doomed vessel that ran headlong into the nation’s best defensive tackle and his very affectionate friends on defense whom only wanted to hug Jackson at high speed.
14:5418-yard pass to Reggie Bonnafon
3:0924-yard pass to Cole Hikutini
Jackson throws three interceptions in this game. He had to throw one: a pick at the end of the game, a Hail Mary that Kentucky didn’t just knock down because … well, because they were excited about beating a rival, and about their own quarterback Stephen Johnson throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the Cardinals. Kentucky somehow went 7-5 this year and beat Louisville, and no matter how much time passes between this and whenever I reread this, it will never make sense to me.
There’s an underthrown ball intercepted by a defensive back on a go route. There’s also one deflection turned into an INT, which happens. Oh, and the lost fumble that becomes the winning Kentucky field goal. There are two unacceptable turnovers in here — albeit two turnovers made by a sophomore quarterback scrambling for much of the game under pressure and getting zero help from his defense (a defense that allowed 581 yards in this game and gave up 38, 42, and 36 points in Louisville’s three losses this year).
Otherwise, even in a loss, Jackson put up 452 yards of Louisville’s 561 yards of offense, and four of their five touchdowns, and what … what? What do you want out of one player? What more do you ask of one player? What the hell do you want? Only Pat Mahomes had more total yards this season, and Pat Mahomes has been losing 95-91 games in the Big 12 where he throws the ball 70 times because he has to just to keep his team within striking distance of the opponent. (Only one part of that sentence is an exaggeration.)
No one has accounted for more total touchdowns than Jackson, either — 51 in all between passing and rushing, and that’s without playing a conference championship game. If he goes off in the bowl game, Jackson could equal Marcus Mariota’s 57 mark from Oregon’s 2014 season. And even without that, this is a top-20 performance all-time in terms of offensive production.
Jackson is not even remotely the product of a system. He is not a fluke firing his way through the weak defenses of a non-Power Five conference. He is not even close to a fully developed football player at this point in his career. Yet statistically and in terms of pure shock and awe, Jackson is the best offensive player in college football. If the numbers don’t do it — and they should by themselves — then believe your eyes.
Cougars football is trying to fit the city that's too big for a belt
by Spencer Hall
The University of Houston Cougars are playing Tulsa and I can’t hear it. It’s October 16 and the windows are closed in the press box even though it’s warm enough to sit outside. They could be opened, if you were willing to open them slowly, and with a firm hand. Someone decided to make the hydraulic hinges of the windows strong enough to throw an adult-sized person clean out the window. This is an evidence-based statement: A radio guy from an opposing team tried it once, holding onto the rope at the bottom of the frame.
Only his toes catching on the edge of a desk saved him.
This is supposed to be a story about America’s hottest football program, and I’m watching Houston play football and … they are not good right now, here, on October 16. What I came here for was to watch the Houston Cougars play brilliant football, the kind of football that has won 22 games to this point in two years, beaten Florida State and Oklahoma, and made their coach, Tom Herman, the first name on the shopping lists of the Texas Longhorns and other major programs looking for new management.
That is not what is happening and I can’t hear any of it.
This is fine: There’s probably not much to hear. In the first game back home after their first loss of the season — a 46-40 giveaway to Navy — Houston is struggling with Tulsa. The Cougars turn the ball over three times. They miss basic tackles, blow assignments. A loud anxious silence you can almost hear as its own distinct noise creeps into the corners of TDECU Stadium.
With eight seconds on the clock, Tulsa has a first-and-goal with one timeout to spare in a one-score game.
It is so close — after the game, Tulsa coach Phil Montgomery would say that it was as close as you could get to being in without being in. There is no air between the plane of the goal line and the ball. Tulsa fails to score, and Houston wins by the thinnest of margins.
Tulsa’s players wander off to the locker room, stunned. Houston charges the field, which is really the only way you would know they’d won. The crowd does not respond until the referee completes the official review. Even then they seem to be fear-laughing, the kind of giggle you make when you just avoided getting hit by a car crossing the street. Houston avoided a loss and stays alive for the moment in all the big senses: the American Athletic Conference title hopes, the Playoff, a high national ranking, and increasing the profile of the program.
All that is true, and yet none of that feels right.
After the game, I sit for a while at Cream Burger, a Third Ward burger stand. It’s half-lit at 1:30 a.m. I get a banana shake and drink it slowly while the parents of Cougars football players and locals come and go and leave me sitting there alone. Eventually, even the guy pushing the grocery cart full of his possessions down Elgin Street stops staring at me and decides I can eat Frito pie in peace.
There’s all these people around me, and then there’s not. Driving around Houston during the day is your standard exercise in Sun Belt transit frustration, all blinding sunshine off car hoods, missing and nearly missing exits to one node of the city’s web of nerve cells or another. At night, it blazes in patches of half-lit buildings and brutally illuminated gas stations. When it goes to sleep, it flickers like the EKG of a brain in between dream cycles.
Houston is America’s fourth-largest city and you have no idea what’s there. Most other cities have something to put on your postcard, some instantly memorable symbol to pin the entire city around.San Francisco is smaller but has a giant red bridge. Philadelphia has a bell, Los Angeles has the Hollywood sign.
Houston has humidity and that doesn’t look like much on camera. There are roads — so many roads, with roads next to the roads next to the access road. The highest points in the city are not located inside shiny glass-walled skyscrapers but instead sit on highway overpasses, from which you get a quick peek at Houston’s 360 carpeting of apartment complexes, industrial yards dotted with cars and cranes and construction equipment, patches of cedar elm and loblolly pine trees, rail lines, drainage ditches, and the occasional glimmer of water.
Oil was found at Spindletop in Beaumont in 1901. Low taxes, Sun Belt migration, and the placement of NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center in town did much of the rest.
Against all physical logic — the kind that says you shouldn’t be able to knock mosquitoes out of the air with a golf club, or that in an era of global warming you might not want to move to a city with an average high of 94 and 300 percent humidity — Houston is the largest city in Texas. It grew at 2.4 percent from July 2014 to 2015. it continued to grow despite falling oil prices, traditionally the bellwether of Houston’s economic health.
Houston grew and it grows and it grows. It got a perimeter road. Then Houston got fatter and got another belt. Then it got still fatter and built a third cinching road around its bloated self. The city that was the first word spoken on the moon grew and grew and grew like a fast-expanding mold in the humidity, and it’s still growing, and it’s just everywhere all at once: roads lined with stucco-faced early-90s modern apartment blocks and squatty palm trees, vast gulches of commercial signage — hi, Whataburger — lining highways, immaculately manicured lawns of River Oaks, the row homes of the Third Ward, suburbs spilling out in all directions, and the curlicued paths past and through rail yards.
I drove down a four-lane, one-way road on the way to one interview. I didn’t realize it was one-way, not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because a driver had decided to avoid turning all the way around the block by popping left into the spacious right lane and going the wrong way. He didn’t even wave when he went past. I didn’t feel threatened or worried: No matter what the road signs say, there are no one-way roads in Houston.
There is a public university, the University of Houston. That university has a football team. That football program, historically speaking, really only has one gear: excess.
Case in point: The University of Houston football team once scored 95 points in a single football game.
In 1989, the SMU Mustangs played the Cougars in their first year back from the death penalty. Fourteen of SMU’s 22 starters were freshmen. On the other sideline, Houston had the eventual Heisman Trophy winner for 1989 at quarterback in Andre Ware and the nation’s most merciless offense in the run-and-shoot. Jack Pardee was the coach, and he brought the offense to Houston from the USFL, where his quarterback Jim Kelly racked up insane numbers as the QB for the Houston Gamblers.
SMU was going to lose and lose badly, but the run-and-shoot did not slow down. It did not run clock well, and would certainly not run clock well against the decimated shell of what had been SMU, the high-octane athletic corruption machine that finally imploded in 1987 with the NCAA’s complete suspension of the program.
The Cougars opened as 59 1⁄2 point favorites. They covered that total by the third quarter on the way toward 1,021 yards of offense and 10 touchdown passes. Shasta, the Cougars’ mascot, would do as many pushups as were points on the scoreboard for Houston. Shasta ended up doing 682 pushups on the day.
Jack Pardee admitted after the game that Houston could have easily gotten to 100, but simply declined to out of respect for the damage they’d already done to SMU.
Not that Houston hadn’t scored 100 points before — they had. Against Tulsa in 1968 in the Astrodome, the Cougars under Bill Yeoman made one final extra point to top the century mark. One of the linemen in that game for Tulsa was Phil McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil. If he says he’s known trauma, he speaks honestly and from experience.
I mention this to get you to see few general patterns about Houston football, and maybe Houston as a whole.
First of all, Houston has floated around a bit. Houston football was all too familiar with booms and busts and booms and back to bust again, often achieving these in spectacular fashion. In 1955 — and this should sound familiar at this point —Houston attempted to get membership in the SEC, and was denied a year later when Houston lost both games to SEC opponents. Houston played as an independent until joining the Southwest Conference in 1976 — which then imploded under a wave of exciting corruption scandals, eventually folding and sending Houston through Conference USA, and now to its current home in the AAC.
It’s not that Houston football is just now in the year 2016 deciding to be upwardly mobile and seek a bigger conference. It’s that Houston has always been on the come-up, and never totally secure in where it was.
Houston also innovates. The Bill Yeoman era generated record-setting offensive numbers with the groundbreaking veer offense. Jack Pardee’s run-and-shoot enjoyed a short but successful run as an offense adopted not just at the college level, but in the NFL, as well. The system Art Briles used at Houston is now in place to some degree at Syracuse, Texas, and Tulsa. Kevin Sumlin’s Air Raid staff at Houston included current West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, and Sumlin’s eventual successor at Houston, Tony Levine.
Houston has a history of being good at football, and good in pioneering, innovative kinds of ways. It also has a history of suffering from brain drain. Pardee was pulled away by the NFL. Briles took the Baylor job. Kevin Sumlin was hired away by Texas A&M, and now Tom Herman, a former grad assistant for the University of Texas, is the lead candidate to replace Charlie Strong as the head coach of the Longhorns.
This is the program that can and has scored 100 points in a football game. It is also the program that suffers from the downside of success as much or more than any team in college football. Like a lot of things in the city, Houston football can go from zero to 100 in sixty minutes. It can also stop just as quickly as it started.
Houston coach Tom Herman sits in his office the day after the Tulsa game on Sunday. He’s wearing a University of Houston sweatshirt and athletic shorts and a Houston ballcap, i.e. churchwear if the church you’re going to is a chapel service for football players. Herman is 41, but ages out anywhere between 30 and 45 depending on the light, how much sleep he got the night before (likely not a lot), and what he’s wearing. Right now he looks to be a comfortable 37 or so.
That applies to this Tom Herman. It’s hard to find more than two or three photos where he looks the same week to week, or month to month. Maybe it’s fluctuating weight — coaches can sometimes gain a whole toddler between the end of the regular season and signing day — or maybe it’s the baseball caps, or maybe it’s just Herman’s face, but he’s mutable, one of those people pictures don’t really capture at all.
He is better described in terms of staccato bursts of language and information. He does not say fuck a lot in interviews, but seems like the kind of person who would love to say the word fuck a lot in interviews if that were cool.
Herman is less a fast talker than an extremely focused, concise one. Ask him about Houston and he disgorges his pitch for the city in whole well-rehearsed, rapidly delivered blocks of information. Herman reels off that Houston is the Number One Job Creating City in America; is nearly recession-proof (though he knocks on the glass of the table between us as he says this); is the most diverse city in America, and that the University of Houston reflects that.
I ask him if he thinks people generally don’t understand Houston as a city.
"No, that’s something you have to explain. Houston is unique in that most everyone is from here. There’s a genuine pride in the city of Houston I haven’t seen in any other city I’ve been to. I think we try to tap into that pride. There’s a lot of oil and gas money floating around, but there’s still a lot of blue-collar plant workers, harbor workers. That’s the one thing that’s always endeared me to Houston. The generational pride that’s in this city because so many people’s family are from a hundred-mile radius."
He would know. This is Herman’s sixth job in the state of Texas: first at Texas Lutheran, then as a grad assistant at the University of Texas, then to Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice University, and finally back to Houston. Houston is different in a state that, for a lot of reasons but, yes, including football, is different from other places. Katy High in suburban Harris County has a staff of fourteen coaches. There are three different offensive line coaches alone. As a recruiter, Tom Herman has to know all their names because Texas high school football is a Thing, but Houston high school football is a THING.
And in the largest, most football-obsessed city in a gigantic state already obsessed with football, the University of Houston plays strange odds. Once a commuter school nicknamed "Cougar High," the University of Houston now trails only Texas A&M for the number of on-campus residents. Cougars football will almost always be second in a city mostly loyal to the Houston Texans, but it’s gaining, and more than any other team makes an effort to embrace the cultural iconography of Houston. It is still a recruiting stunt for a 40-year-old white college football coach to get a bejeweled gold grill as a result of a bet he made with his players, sure. But Herman did that in the city that made grills a thing, got it made by Paul Wall and Johnny Dang, and extends sideline invites to rappers who would never be welcome on the sidelines in College Station or Austin. It’s not without strategy, but more so than any other college football program does to its hometown, Houston markets itself back to Houston’s ample recruiting pool to try and keep them close.
Yet even with that proximity to talent, the margins Houston has to succeed by are thin in more than one sense of the word. The Cougars’ operating budget is smaller than the smallest in the Big 12. We talk on a Sunday. The next day Big 12 leadership is scheduled to meet to decide whether to expand. That expansion, in theory, could include Houston, bringing the Cougars into a Power 5 conference.
I ask Herman about beating Tulsa on the last play of the game.
"The teams that we were in that stratosphere with in the top five, and even now in the top ten? Ohio State didn’t score an offensive touchdown against Tulsa until the middle of the third quarter. They beat them 41-3.
"I’m sure Alabama could play their second-string offense and defense against Vanderbilt and win. That’s not a knock on Vanderbilt, I’m just saying that these teams in the top five and top ten have a tremendous amount of depth. And every few weeks they can get away with rolling out their C game and still being good enough to win.
"But when you saw those three teams in the top ten you saw Houston next to them. Can we play with any of them? I think the answer is yes. But the margin for error is so slim between winning and losing, and between eight or nine wins and eleven or twelve wins."
I ask him where the program could be in five years.
"Well, if Houston’s in the Big 12, then there’s going to be some growing pains early. Just from a resource perspective alone. Our operating budget right now is tens of millions of dollars lower than the lowest budget in the Big 12. I think realistically we can be the next TCU in the Big 12 if we get commitments in resources, which will help in recruiting."
And if that doesn’t happen?
"And then I think if that doesn’t happen — and that’s okay — then you’re in the best non-Power Five conference in the country, and you’ll have better players than most teams that you play in that league. You have a chance to be the next Boise, win your conference, and go to a New Year’s Six bowl game. Not every year, but consistently."
We don’t talk about other jobs, mostly because we don’t have to, because you know that thing where someone says things in response to one question, and yet feels like they’re answering another one? The one you want to ask in the first place, but don’t need to after the other person moves three steps ahead by answering it for you indirectly?
That’s Herman when he talks about Houston without the Big 12. He’s saying the words and behind it you can hear him saying It probably won’t be me here. It’ll be Houston, but not me.
Herman excuses himself to go to chapel with the team.
The next day, the Big 12 announces that they will not expand.
The next week Houston loses, 38-16, on the road to a 2-4 SMU team. Herman’s press conference is a study in stunned misery, with one note of dark comic relief running behind it: The sounds of SMU’s players and coaches celebrating behind Herman, whooping and yeehawing like it’s Texas or something.
The hotel I stay at looks out at 1400 Smith Street. This is the building formerly known as Enron Complex, a shiny semi-cylindrical fifty-floor office building that resembles the battery-powered, chrome-plated pepper grinder of the gods. Enron moved to Houston in 1985, and transformed itself from two small natural gas utilities into an international behemoth posting unreal profits. Fortune named them the most innovative company in America for six years running.
They were innovative, in one sense. Enron ran on a brilliant, serpentine system of accounting frauds created at the highest levels of the company, and passed on as legitimate business to shareholders, employees, and the public. Execs like Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and Kenneth Lay sold stock, hid corporate losses, and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of company funds into the pockets of management and their families. At one point, during the time when executives were jettisoning company stock while encouraging employees and others to buy it, Enron was defrauding the newly deregulated energy market in California for billions of dollars, price-gouging the state into rolling blackouts in 2001.
By December of that year, the company was bankrupt, its executives were on the way to a long trip through the court system, and the giant chromed-out pepper shaker downtown was emptying out under liquidation.
I don’t bring this up to suggest that Enron had anything to do with Houston besides geography and the proximity to other petrochemical companies. I don’t bring it up to compare it to Houston football directly — though it is worth pointing out that in the year when Enron, Houston’s most visible company at the time, disintegrated into a pile of bad spreadsheets, Houston Cougar football suffered through an 0-11 season, including a home loss to cross-town rival Rice.
That’s fun and coincidental. The tangible point is that Enron nuking itself in a hundred-billion fireball of fraud would dent most cities’ economies and put a mean limp in their stride for a decade. I have to tell you this, because that is not what happened here. With the aftermath included, Houston’s population still grew by a quarter in the decade following Enron’s implosion.
(Note: the Astros did have to play at Enron Field until June of 2002, when Minute Maid bought the rights to the stadium name.)
The point is that if you read the Pimp C biography Sweet Jones: Pimp C’s Trill Life Story, you would know that all of this is so vast and huge and misunderstood by the rest of the United States that rappers could spend their entire life cycles in Houston, selling less than one hundred thousand copies of their records, and still make a living. Even Destiny’s Child could have been happy with that: per Mathew Knowles, the initial goal was to be big in Houston, and then maybe Texas. Anything beyond that was a happy bonus.
You could be huge in Houston, and no one outside the city might ever know.
That’s the frightening thing: Houston shook Enron off like a massive accounting error. The economy kept on pumping along through a time when most of the country was in a jobless recovery and/or recession. When you think about the skyscrapers of Houston’s skyline it is hard to not think of them as oddly shaped barnacles riding the back of an enormous, sweaty beast so big you don’t even realize you’re standing on it.
Not that it’s connected either, but: since 2001 the Houston Cougars have had three coaches hired away by Power 5 programs, all in the state of Texas: Texas A&M, Baylor, and one to be named later. Since 2001, despite being outspent by all three, only one of those programs has more wins than the Houston Cougars.
Houston will host Louisville on a Thursday night.
The weather will be clear and finally, in mid-November, something besides sauna-cauldron hot. The spread will be 17 1⁄2 points.
The quarterback for the Louisville Cardinals is Lamar Jackson, the leading Heisman candidate responsible for 46 total touchdowns and at least five moments of jaw-dropping highlight reel material per game. Lamar Jackson’s worst games in 2016 involve scoring only three TDs, and merely accounting for 300 yards of offense by himself.
The quarterback for Houston will be Greg Ward Jr., the talented dual-threat quarterback who will play the game with a bad shoulder, a bad knee, and who knows what else in terms of nagging injuries. With starting running back Duke Catalon missing playing time early in the season, Ward took on even more of the offensive workload. Against Tulsa, under pressure and scrambling all night, Ward Jr. didn’t look tired, but more like "well-worn," or "approaching mileage beyond that recommended by the manufacturer."
The outlook for Houston is grim.
Most of the non-regulars in the press box are here to watch Jackson secure a Heisman, or at least to shield their eyes from the blast while Jackson blows up the Cougars defense. Before the game, Louisville staffers pass out Heisman promotional material for Jackson. They’re flipbooks that in one direction show Jackson lacing a TD pass into the end zone against Charlotte. Turn it over, and Jackson leaps over a Syracuse defender for a touchdown — clear over him, paused in the air like he’s squatting on a stepstool five feet off the ground, marveling at the tiny humans below running around and diving after him.
Louisville staffers are passing out Heisman promo material for their guy at a road game in a hostile stadium. No one, including them, is here to watch Lamar Jackson lose.
Houston takes the field running between twin pylons equipped with gas jets pulsing twenty-foot stripes of flame into the air, and on this extremely beautiful night, with the setting sun lighting up the ozone and trapped petrochemical fumes and swamp gas and whatever else fires the sky into red-purple streaks in Texas, Lamar Jackson loses.
Oh, man, does he lose.
It’s 7-0, then 10-0, and then Houston begins rolling through the checklist of things that happen when one team plays the full upset card script all the way through. Is there a fake kick of some sort? (Yes.) Is there a gameplan built exclusively to annoy the other team, and exploit their weaknesses in the most obnoxious manner possible? (Oh yes.) Is there a trick play? (Absolutely.)
At the half, it’s 31-0, Houston.
A second half happens, and when it ends Houston has sacked Lamar Jackson 11 times on the night. Houston fans rush the field, a floating island of red on green turf. Tom Herman stands on the sideline with Greg Ward Jr., both of their shoulders square to an ESPN camera. There is no scrambling for the coach like you usually see postgame, no negotiations or back and forth. He’s ready, right down to the blockers deployed in two lines along the line of sight to give studio a clean shot of the coach and his quarterback.
It’s like they planned it before any of this ever happened, as if they stood a chance at all.
Houston is a massive concrete archipelago. It floats on a bed of bayous and pine barrens and grassy washes in between, and was built as wide as that palette. It’s not totally true that there’s no zoning — there are plenty of usage laws on the books that come close to traditional zoning — but in a state and region full of them, Houston is the biggest sprawl-beast of all.
It’s sprawling in more than one sense of the word. Houston can be super-Texas-country: the requisite pickup trucks, gun shops (oh my god the gun shops), churches, the giant lawns in all the easy marks. There’s also the biggest Hindu temple I’ve seen outside of India because of a booming South Asian population, and a slew of Spanish language radio presets in the rental car thanks to a huge Hispanic community. The banh mi game is extremely real thanks to the Vietnamese and other immigrants that settled in Harris County after 1975. The Chinese community is large enough that you can fly EVA Air direct to IAH from Taipei. One in four Houstonians is foreign-born, including the University of Houston’s President, Renu Khator, who hails from India.
It’s diverse, and not just in terms of ethnicity. In the midst of what former mayor Annise Parker called "a toxic sea of red," Houston is a stalwart blue dot that hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since the 1970s. Parker, who left office in January, was the first openly gay mayor of an American city with a population over a million. There’s all that sprawl, but there’s also light rail, and greenways, and art installations, including the Big Bubble, which consists of a single red button nestled in a brick column on Preston Street by Buffalo Bayou. Press it and you’re not really sure what will happen, which is kind of the point: you idiot, you just pressed a red button for no reason, and might have blown something up far away. You didn’t, as far as you know. Instead, there’s a rush of compressed air, a rumble, and then a giant burp out of the yellow-brown water of the bayou.
The Big Bubble is the single greatest piece of public art I have ever seen, because it involves making a city fart at you.
It’s not pretty or scenic or anything other than a swampy, soupy, overheated, traffic-ridden amoeba of a city, the kind that at its worst moments resembles an overgrown fungus capable of dying from a serious congestive heart condition.
Houston is a cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in east Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence. It’s a shabby, sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops and super-rich pansexual cowboys who live by the code of the west—which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch
—it ain’t accurate. It’s not close. If there are pansexual cowboys, I didn’t meet them. If there is a culture of sex, money, and violence, it’s average at best for the American standard. Ditto for the crooked cops and brazen women. It can be shabby, but you try keeping a suit pressed in that heat for longer than six minutes. I don’t know what the code of the west is, but in Texas I assume it doesn’t kick in until somewhere just west of San Antonio.
When he wrote that for The Independent in 2004, Hunter S. Thompson needed every place to feel like that, I guess, but that’s not what I saw in Houston. Houston is best experienced mouth-first, and the enemy is not an army of malevolent cowboy conmen,but a much more mundane one: gout. Trying to eat everything you are supposed to eat — the Korean braised goat dumplings at Underbelly, the barbecue at Killen’s, the Frito pie I had as a side dish at Cream Burger, the Vietnamese pho, the Indian at Himalaya— will level you. That none of this is mentioned by Thompson is proof he did not eat solid food for the last thirty years of his life.
Houston is disordered, diverse, hot, constantly fighting its own bulk, nearly ungovernable, prone to flooding, traffic jams, and occasionally susceptible to the cruel whims of global oil and gas prices. It sometimes follows currents contrary to what the rest of the country does, or thinks, or buys or reads or listens to or eats. In the 2016 elections, Houston chose Kim Ogg as District Attorney after the openly gay candidate ran on a platform of diverting non-violent drug offenders away from jail and properly prosecuting rape cases. In the midst of the most savage, reactionary election season in recent memory, that happened.
It’s a lot of things floating along at once, is what I’m saying — some above the water, some listing below it, and some in the process of heading one way or the other. All that uncertainty and flux doesn’t stop. It’s ceaseless. It can’t be stopped. It is what your city is, or will be: diverse, messy, probably hot and unplanned in the way all thriving organisms are. You could not contain Houston, not with three belts strapped tightly around it. It’s the messy, hot, live present and future, as certain and unstoppable as heartburn from trying to digest all of it.
On Nov. 25, the Houston Cougars gave up a late TD to lose their final game of the 2016 regular season to Memphis, 48-44.
On Nov. 26, Tom Herman resigned as head coach of the Houston Cougars and accepted the head coaching position at the University of Texas.
In the Special Collections Department of the University of Houston’s M.D. Anderson Library, past the main entrance and up to the second floor behind a couple of locked doors, is the entire record collection and personal effects of Robert Earl Davis, Jr., aka DJ Screw.
DJ Screw was one of the founding figures of Houston hip-hop, the DJ who popularized a lot of what most people associate with early Houston hip-hop. Like a lot of Houston rappers and producers, Screw was almost entirely self-invented, a vinyl obsessive who slowed down everything and anything he wanted into sludgy beats. He worked, for the most part, out of his house and away from the label system, recording his sessions off vinyl and onto tape and selling them out of his home. The system was simple: if you wanted a Screw tape, you went to his house and bought one, or simply waited until someone dubbed one for you.
No one is really sure how many Screw tapes there are: definitely hundreds, possibly thousands. The ones in the archives are Maxell XLII tapes kept in a glorified shoebox, each bearing the title written in Screw’s handwriting on the side.
The list of personal effects is small. There are a few greeting cards, signed in his scrawl, simply: "SCREW." There are unopened promos — tons from record companies and possibly imaginary record companies asking Screw to listen to this demo, or play this record on a tape. A photograph of Screw as a kid with his Little League team, looking kind of lost like most kids in Little League do.
The wave of artists Screw’s beats floated and influenced and pushed into life now all do so many different things. Bun B is the unofficial mayor of Houston, and performs with the Houston Symphony in between helping make wine pairings at Underbelly and lecturing at Rice University. Paul Wall still records and makes grills, but branched out into acting for a while. His partner in the grill business, Johnny Dang, the one who helped with Tom Herman’s custom grill, just opened a new showroom for his jewelry shop. It’s gleaming white marble in all directions, with an AR-15 hanging on the back wall clearly visible through a window into the custom shop. Even Lil Ikes, the custom auto shop famous for candy paint jobs, moved to a new location. Slabs are strictly an elective high-end business for them now, and will cost you over eight grand if they decide it’s something they want to do.
Chamillionaire is a successful tech investor, and in 2015 served as the "entrepreneur-in-residence" at venture capital firm Upfront Ventures.
Screw died in 2000. He was found in his home, dead from what the coroner called a codeine overdose. His father donated Screw’s effects to the University of Houston library, where you can look at it if you show an ID, state your purpose, and behave nicely about the whole thing. He’s in there with the maps, the blurry photos, the accounts of storm damage, the University of Houston football programs from the 1989 season with a dashing-looking Jack Pardee on the cover.
There is one more box. The archivists want to know if I want to look at it. I say sure without asking what it is, and look around the room. The library has all these black-and-white photos on the wall of historical Houston. None of them are pretty, just photos of endless human activity and hustling and sweat and the maps people used to guide all that movement.
Let your brain float on it and it seems loud, and hot, and busy, like one long hustle from one day to the next. A library is supposed to be quiet and this one is, with only the hum of the air-conditioning in the background. But looking around for a minute your brain picks up all that noise whether you want to or not — and that’s before you remember you just held a whole shoebox of Screw tapes. They’re loud just sitting there in your hand.
The archivists hand the box over. It’s a flat, long box, the kind you might keep a kid’s christening gown in for memory’s sake. I open it. It’s a purple sack with gold piping.
I’m holding DJ Screw’s Crown Royal bag.
Major Applewhite is on a bus, riding with his team as they shuttle around Sin City for Las Vegas Bowl festivities. He was anointed the head coach of the Houston Cougars after a search that featured a full-blown moment of panic when disgraced former Baylor and Houston coach Art Briles’s name surfaced as a rumored candidate, plus a flirtation with Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (who since accepted the FAU head coaching gig).
Ultimately, Houston promoted from within, and in doing so got a UT legend to replace the coach they just sent north to a new job in Austin. Applewhite had finished his first full weekend of recruiting. The pitch for Houston sounds the same. You might play football, but after you play your four or five years, or after you play in the league, where do you want to live? Where will you get a job? He mentions the indomitable job market, the proximity to home. It sounds a lot like Tom Herman’s pitch for the program, and it should: Applewhite has been on the Houston staff for two years.
I don’t ask him what he thinks of a few things. The first is about how his new boss, University President Renu Khator, said that Houston was a place where 10-2 was the standard, and that they would fire you for 8-4. Applewhite had been on the job for four days when we talked, and it seemed pointless to ask. After all, it’s par for the course with everything else in Houston: to start with an empty, boggy lot, and then build Mission Control on the same spot, and then eventually send things into the stratosphere from that completely unremarkable bit of earth. That happened. This could happen. It seemed very hard, at any point, to suggest this could not be real, or that anyone was being unreasonable.
I also did not ask him about WWE legend Booker T announcing his run for mayor of Houston, which was also something that happened in real life.
I did ask: will he get a grill, like Herman did? He paused, and seemed to put real thought into it before answering.
"I was thinking of getting one of those chalices. I think that’s more suited to my personality."
Here’s where you stand after testing yourself against the best.
You are the Washington Huskies football team. It’s weird, I know. You’re now easily over 100 people, and that’s a hard thing to comprehend. Work with me.
You’re a whole football team, and you just got finished losing, 24-7, to Alabama.
You feel very bad right now. Alabama defensive lineman/racing bulldozer Jonathan Allen chased you and buried you every time you tried to block him. Receptions of the ball — when they even happened — ended with two or three well-positioned, well-coached, and superbly conditioned players meeting you at the ball. They did not arrive slowly, both because they are fast and because they did not eat a full truckload of Chick-fil-A at the team hotel this week. (Half the usual order, because of “concerns” about the Tide eating that much fried food prior to the game.)
You, the entire Huskies team, tried to tackle running back Bo Scarbrough.
You did try. There’s film of it and everything. You didn’t do it, of course. Scarbrough ran for 184 yards on just 19 carries, scored twice, and effectively ended the game by a.) running out of his own endzone on third down to move the chains, and b.) crosscutting the Washington defense on the longest touchdown rush in Alabama bowl history, a demoralizing 68-yarder.
Scarbrough runs with Derrick Henry’s power and Kenyan Drake’s ability to blow through holes before defenders even read the blocks. Nick Saban now orders combinations of former players from a lab and creates custom hybrids. The next running back will have Scarbrough DNA in his coding; Alabama will be one step closer to offensive perfection. This is The Process, and it works whether Lane Kiffin decides to make bizarre calls down the stretch on his way out the door to the Florida Atlantic job or not.*
* Kiffin did call one of your own plays against you, Washington, that toss sweep fake with an option keeper. He has a sense of humor, and that’s probably why he’ll be coaching at Florida Atlantic next year.
You’re hurt, and you’re also hurt, Washington. You won your first Pac-12 title since 2000. You walloped a good swath of your schedule, including a 70-21 flattening of Oregon, your first win over the Ducks since 2003. You demolished your state-rival Cougars. Sophomore Jake Browning emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the country, wideout John Ross tore up Pac-12 defenses with breathtaking ease, and Psalm Wooching and Budda Baker played hyperactive, downhill-attacking defense all year long.
It was great, but you knew that, because you’re the Washington football team here. You know yourself pretty well. You also know that you got to the national title picture way, way ahead of schedule, hitting the Playoff in year three of the Chris Petersen administration.
That’s not bad! It’s a sign you’re talented. In fact, it’s a sign you’re so talented that your fast-track promotion pitted you against not only the best-engineered power in college football this year, but the most dominant power of the last decade.
And this has been written before, but this time it starred you, and that makes all the difference.
Boy, has all of this has been written before, and so many times, and in the same tedious way every time. The plotline rarely changes. Alabama won a football game with a brutal defense and a dominant run game. Nothing happened once the Tide got a 10-point lead. That’s what’s supposed to happen when Alabama gets a 10-point lead: nothingness, despair, and a brutal boredom.
Even their players were larger. You saw that, along with everyone else, when Alabama’s defensive line got into a three-point stance. Their haunches were bigger, man. A team can’t lose when it has the decided haunches advantage.
You also can’t win when the other team has been at this for years of extremely focused recruiting. You know this, because when Allen needed a break, former five-star Da’Shawn Hand stepped into make your life hell. You can’t win when the staff on the other side is so big and so deep that it allegedly pulled video of all of your coach’s trick plays for the last eight years. There are at least five former head coaches on staff in one capacity or another, amid the sea of consultants, graduate assistants, quality control coordinators, trainers, and other support staff.
You can get all of this in time. Time is a thing most college football teams act like they don’t have. This has already been a long, long time coming. Bama got higher than you on the mountain by starting a full decade before you, when Tyrone Willingham was flying your program straight into the side of Mount Rainier. And look at you now, leaving Atlanta bruised and battered but with a clear understanding of where you’re at as a program. You’re a top-10 program now.
You don’t need pep talks right now, though.
You also don’t need to do what other programs have done when, having been outpaced by Alabama, in the wake of that defeat.
The SEC, by and large, responded to Saban in the dumbest way possible. Other schools hired his underlings, assuming Saban was running some kind of replicable football management academy. (The mixed results from that effort show he was not, and that if you want Saban football, you should probably hire Saban.)
You need to remember that some schools, when faced with the challenge of Alabama’s presence, simply chose to keep doing the things they know they are good at. Clemson’s model is based on relentless recruiting and hiring talented assistants to work around Dabo Swinney’s CEO-cheerleading role. At no point has Clemson panicked or changed what works for them. They play Alabama in the championship again after coming within one possession of outright beating them last year.
More of what you do well, done with patience: that’s how you chip away at a superpower. It’s a long process, humbling process, but it’s something Petersen seemed to acknowledge in his postgame presser.
Along those lines, you know, we also talked about the bar has been moved in that locker room, and they get that. So they got a taste of it. And so that's awesome, and so I think that can change your mindset. But it's not like we — when we go back to work, we're the same team. So it's a balance between knowing that they can do some special things if we kind of go back to our humble roots of starting over.
Talking about starting over, work, and humility just minutes after a conference championship and a trip to the Playoff is definitely the way to go. It may also be the one definite thing besides recruiting good players you can take from Alabama’s plan. This sounds like Saban after every game, including any of his national title games.
You also don’t need to remember the last image.
The Georgia Dome’s last-ever college football game came a day before its last-ever regular season NFL game. With celebratory confetti from Alabama’s trophy presentation still on the field, the stadium crew needed to flip the field for the Falcons game on Sunday.
Looking down from the press box, the last thing I saw were the workers at the Dome powerwashing “WASHINGTON” out of the end zone with a quickness. Either way, they blast your name off the field at the end.
Think of all the little moments that led us to this one.
If previously unstoppable Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough didn’t miss most of the second half, or if Alabama’s offense hadn’t been handed to an entirely different coordinator a week before the national title game, after the previous coordinator wore out his welcome ...
If Alabama had gotten more than a field goal out of a Clemson fumble in the third quarter, when Ryan Anderson was tackled by Tigers receiver Hunter Renfrow before yet another Alabama defensive touchdown found its way onto the stat sheet ...
(Tackle is a strong word, actually: Renfrow threw himself into Anderson’s legs like a kid throwing a stick into the spokes of a bike.)
If the Alabama offense hadn’t gained just 7 yards on the following three plays, and settled for a field goal to take a 17-7 lead when a touchdown could have gotten them a seemingly insurmountable 21-7 lead ...
I’m not trying to torture you, Alabama. We just have to review these, because this is a process.
You like Processes, with a capital P, like the vaunted system that got you four national titles under Nick Saban, arguably the greatest college football coach to ever live, much less coach the Crimson Tide. You have to go over all the ifs. It’s what champions do, even if they just blew a chance at a fifth title.
If Alabama, a team more built for predictable outcomes than any in the history of college football, had drawn any other team than Clemson, then this could have been different for them. The Tigers, given a choice, take more plays, more opportunities. The clock, for Clemson, is a thing stopped by first downs, not bled by a run game for the purposes of making less football to worry about.
Alabama, by design, wanted a shorter game, the kind of managed crushing operation Saban dreams about in the precisely six hours of sleep he requires a night. With a 17-7 lead, the plan — and for Alabama, with every gesture, there is always a plan — was the same as it had ever been. Fewer snaps. More hostile poundage lined up two-deep along the defensive line. More bludgeoning than Clemson could handle, followed by endless, resigned punting.
Alabama tried that plan. Clemson receiver Mike Williams, already playing after being sidelined with a shot to the head in the first quarter, took vicious shots from the Alabama secondary. The Tiger defense rolled face-first into Scarbrough on the ground. After he exited with the injury, they gamely tried to contain QB Jalen Hurts. With one huge exception at the end of the game, they succeeded.
No Clemson player tried to cover O.J. Howard, because Howard is invisible to all Clemson defenders and always will be. After torching Clemson last year, Howard got yet another completely uncovered touchdown, was open on almost every play, caught a pass on a trick play from ArDarius Stewart, and even inadvertently stole a screen pass from his running back. (Don’t laugh too hard. Even with the mistake, he had blockers in front of him.)
The Tigers had a plan, too.
They had a plan all along, and it wasn’t much different than the game plan last year, when Clemson freaked Alabama out so badly that the staid Crimson Tide collective resorted to an onside kick. Saban later grumbled about Clemson’s refusal to run up the middle in the first half of that matchup, when the Tigers were hoping less to score and more to get Alabama fatigued. Last year, Clemson wanted a second half run through a gassed series of defenders unaccustomed to four quarters of free-range football.
This year, despite a dismal first half of offense, the Tigers got to a crucial number: 45 plays, mostly racked up in service of fumbles and punts but still taken out of the Alabama defense in short passes, perimeter runs, and read-option plays. To put that in perspective, consider that in 14 games, the Crimson Tide’s defense played an average of 63 plays a game total, many in garbage time, when second- and third-stringers took most of the reps.
Clemson scored on its 60th play to make it 17-14 and break out of the patented Alabama sleeper hold. After that 60-play mark, in a quarter and a half of football against the standard of the era, Deshaun Watson’s offense had 262 of its 511 yards and 21 of its 35 points. The Crimson Tide defense were frogs; Alabama didn’t even know it was in the pot or that the water was boiling hotter with each play.
And there come the ifs again: If officials, who played a loose hand all night for both teams, called pick plays a different way, well, we wouldn’t be here. Clemson scored two touchdowns off end zone “rub” plays, plays that run one way are legal, and run another are not. The line between the two can be subjective. Unless you are an Alabama fan, in which case, they represent further evidence the forward pass should be banned and that the world is out to keep the (four-time recent national champion) Tide from enjoying anything.
There are other ifs, larger and more global moments of wondering. As in: How did this Clemson team even get here, in the cosmic sense?
For instance: If Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow doesn’t decide to do a sort-of-insane thing and walk on as a 155-pound wide receiver at Clemson, instead taking the full scholarship offers he had elsewhere, then he’s not there to catch Watson’s biggest touchdown.
Or if Rich Rodriguez doesn’t balk at the last second and accepts the Alabama job, instead of returning to West Virginia to ultimately take the Michigan job, then Alabama never gets Saban in 2007.
If that never happens? Then in 2008, Clemson doesn’t get hammered by Alabama in the Georgia Dome to open the season, which means no midseason resignation by Tommy Bowden. If Bowden never resigns, then an unknown wide receivers coach on the staff named Dabo Swinney never gets his audition for the job.
And if former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips fires Swinney after a disappointing, 6-7 2010, Swinney never hires offensive coordinator Chad Morris in 2011, and in 2012, Morris never recruits Watson to Clemson.
The present is made of so many little moments.
If Watson has Renfrow open, he’ll float an easy toss. If Renfrow catches it, Clemson will win its first national title in 35 years.
After a thousand ifs gets you to this improbable moment, asking for one more doesn’t seem like much, not after you’ve run the official Best College Football Team In The Nation ragged over the last 20 minutes, broken its defense, pancaked its intractable linemen, and responded to its best shot by driving the length of the field to stand 2 yards away from a victory. It’s not much to ask, after all that.
It’s Watson’s easiest throw of the night. Next, Alabama has one second left on the clock, facing a final kick that will end in defeat. If that sounds familiar, it should.
At 41 years old, ranked the 666th best golfer in the world, Tiger Woods is finding himself.
Tiger Woods grew a line beard last year. A line beard, for those unclear on the concept, is the heavily constructed beard cut to the jawline and no further. It is sometimes known as the chinstrap beard, the jowl-quator, the R&B Lineup, or for Knicks fans, “The Dolan”. It is commonly used like a wire fence across territory lacking natural borders. Everything on one side is face; everything beneath it is surrendered to the body. Like most fences, it requires a lot of maintenance, or else it collapses within months.
Unless you are one of the people currently wearing one, it is universally agreed that it is one of the worst facial hairstyles ever conceived of by mankind.
Tiger Woods had one in 2016. He’s scaled down now to a goatee, which ranks higher than a line beard or Hitler-stache, but still dwells in the basement of facial hair moves. The goatee is THE middle-aged dad choice for men who want to signal that yes, they’re a little too independent to shave every day for The Man, but that they also still put in a little work with the razor.
It, too, is hopelessly outdated for 2017. Even megachurch pastors have deserted the goatee for the Common Hipster Beard, leaving the goatee for “Emotional Noble Everyman Dads In Car Commercials” and “Tom Hanks Playing A Trump Voter.”
It is the kind of decision one could only make if one had spent the better part of 20 years living in their own insanely monied universe, one where whatever you decided was what was decided, where you were handed your own clothes, your own shoes, your own golf clubs, your own look, all by people happy to help you create your own brand, your own very public you.
It is the kind of decision you could only make if you were someone like Tiger Woods, who has been insanely rich since he burst onto the national scene as a teenager, and equally insanely isolated as a celebrity.
Tiger is very, very far from being the 21-year-old who torched Augusta in a red shirt. He is 41 years old. He has been divorced in extremely public fashion. His last major win happened two Presidencies ago. His sole aim, per his own words this week, is “to play away from pain.” Seven days ago, he missed the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego. His namesake video game franchise in 2015 became Rory McIlroy’s namesake video game franchise—the golfer a Nike ad depicted as a child watching Tiger Woods as aspiration.
He is, as of Feb. 1 2017, the 666th ranked golfer in the world.
The fascinating thing is how liberating this all seems for him. Tiger Woods in his competitive prime was, at least on a personal level, a cipher. After giving Charlie Pierce way, way too much in the way of interesting information at the age of 21 in the classic GQ profile, “The Man, Amen,” Woods become a managed, sometimes featureless brand. He gave very little away, other than extremely detailed shop talk on golf, and a general admission to being driven beyond any other golfer on the planet. It was known that he didn’t like certain people, and had feuds with others. Other than a reputation for cheapness when it came time to tip service people, his video game avatar was as interesting as the public person.
I know this because after playing a tour as Woods in Tiger Woods PGA Tour, I started to feel lonely. To fix this, I made my own golfer, a stick-legged, sack-gutted, weak-chinned redneck named Lee John. Lee John had lived through a few things, but his old man swing put the ball in the fairway like clockwork, even on nights when Lee John clearly spent most of the night boiling away his inner demons with the fires only found inside a bottle of Johnny Walker. OK, maybe not Johnny Walker, but like, Early Times.
Anyway: the point is that a ramshackle, thrice-divorced imaginary golfer I made up on the spot was way, way more entertaining than booming 700-yard drives with the real virtual Tiger Woods, because Lee John had something Tiger didn’t: A story, with bumps and tragedies and losses that I had to make up because Tiger had none of that.
Tiger has a few of those now, and maybe did all along. (For instance: Tiger might have screwed up his back running endless training sessions with Navy SEALS in order to emulate his dead father, which: Yeah, that’s a story.) Even if he’s still insanely rich and living in a world where he builds his own bars to hang out in, he’s a more relatable character, and not just because his most circulated highlight of the last couple years or so involves him blading chip shots at the driving range.
Tiger Woods, in the throes of early middle age, decided to try on the line beard. He does interviews about losing his hair. He buys new, sort of embarrassing sunglasses. He might be meditating using an app he’ll tell you about, or trying on whatever the tailor hands him because—well, because he should try new things, right? You have to keep trying new things, like maybe Instagramming yourself shirtless as “Mac Daddy Santa” and sharing it with the world. Because that’s social media, and Tiger does that now, because that’s something you’re definitely supposed to do in 2017.
A video camera operator knocked out Woods’ front tooth in 2015, and Woods wore a bandana over his face to hide the gap in public. The bandana was branded with Woods’ favorite video game at the time, “Ghost Recon,” meaning Woods, the richest golfer in the world, was probably spending a large amount of time each week trying to shoot 14-year-olds in an online combat game.
It’s watching someone make deliberate choices of taste for themselves for the first time in their life—someone with all the money they will ever need, sure, but still a somebody, someone on the downside of 40 with kids making questionable fashion decisions, playing video games, and trying to figure out what kind of pants to wear, because — well, because what kind of pants do you wear when you’re 41, trying to figure it out in public, and all you’re trying to do is swing away from the pain? That’s relatable. He’s like a baby millionaire fawn, finding his legs as a person while his body and his game crumble. That’s not a great script. It is, however, a much better story.
How to combat your tyrannical sports owner.
James Dolan owns the New York Knicks and there is no telling how long he will own them. Lifelong Knick fans have already done this, but I’d like to tell you what that means in simple math. James Dolan is 61 years old, and unless he sells the Knicks to someone else he will on average live another 23.5 years.
Let’s say this as a worst-case scenario: If Dolan lives as long as he is supposed to live, and doesn’t change much of who he is or what he does, he will own the Knicks until about the year 2040. A Knicks fan reading that probably just got the slack-shouldered, dead-eyed look men get when they receive long prison sentences. Their families in the gallery likely collapsed in each other’s arms, overwhelmed by reality.
If you happen to be a fan of a franchise with a bad owner, looking at a mortality table isn’t morbid. It’s practicing self-care, because some day, maybe before you do, the inept, insanely wealthy person owning your team will die and possibly free you. I repeat: This isn’t being mean, it’s quoting actual sentiments actual Washington fans have asked Dan Snyder through media intermediaries.
Knicks fans aren’t trying to be morbid when they think about these things. They’re simply coping with a world where sports tyranny is real and inescapable.
Until 2040 or so, barring some kind of ownership change, Dolan will own the Knicks, and the Knicks will be a bad sports team as a result. The Knicks have won one playoff series since 2000 under Dolan's management.The league’s free agents flock to Miami, Los Angeles, and Cleveland over New York. Talent that leaves the Knicks inevitably flourishes once it leaves. Dolan’s reign may be best known for the tenure of Isiah Thomas, who was inexplicably allowed to coach and run a franchise into the ground, all while getting the company sued for sexual harassment. Dolan has somehow made Phil Jackson look mediocre, something Jackson has spent his entire post-playing career avoiding with great success.
Knicks legend Charles Oakley was thrown out of Madison Square Garden last week. When Oakley asked why, he said he was told, “You have to leave because someone ordered you to leave.” Oakley then got into a fight with security, and was thrown out and banned from the building. In response, Dolan appeared on a local radio station and publicly accused Oakley of being an alcoholic. It got so bad that Michael Jordan and NBA commissioner Adam Silver had to step in to mediate between the two.
This is the owner of the franchise, and a 61-year-old man with every advantage in the world in terms of money, class, privilege, and resources to help him get things right. This is as good at being an owner as Dolan will ever be.
It is not a unique situation. For years Al Davis kept the Raiders swatting at imaginary flies. Snyder has tried to make Washington a good football team often to the detriment of the team, and with a business model that will one day charge fans for oxygen. Jed York, Jimmy Haslam, the DeVos family in Orlando ... they all exist, somehow, without dying of shame. Woody Johnson of the New York Jets may not even realize he owns the Jets. It’s the best explanation at this point.
This all leads to the extremely relevant and practical question: How do you survive when your beloved team has been taken over by the country’s least-fireable, least vulnerable, and meritocracy-immune people?
The Clippers eventually got rid of Donald Sterling, yes. That coup took three decades of humiliating franchise performance, public displays of racism towards his players, a TMZ leak, and the entire NBA working together to oust him. Even then, Sterling still got two billion dollars from the sale of the team.
Professional sports owners are too rich to lose. They are wealthy. They will stay that way, because the way American society works in 2017 is to keep the wealthy at a minimum threshold of wealthy while gutting the middle of the country like a fresh deer carcass for profit.
In the case of sports and probably much more, that carcass is you.
There’s no reason to not gouge the owner on your shuffle off this mortal coil, however. As long as you know this isn’t about winning, and as long as you know that you have some options, you can choose a noble death in battle against your overlords. The choices aren’t great. They are choices besides a default kind of serfdom under tyrannical rule.
I am Spartacus. You are Spartacus. We are Spartacus, and Spartacus is definitely not paying $16 for a large beer without some payback.
It is an option, albeit a grim one. If you decide to abandon your team, know that it will be weird. Other hobbies will have to step up. Other sports may be an option, but know then that waiting around that corner could be another trap. Sure, I’ll just watch EPL soccer, surely their owners must be different! You should not think this, ever.
If you go full deserter, you make a statement. You take money and views and clicks out of the owner’s bucket. Empty seats in an era of television contracts don’t hold the same weight they used to, but they’re still embarrassing. Being one for your team is absolutely free, and requires even less effort than continuing to be a fan without complaint.
There’s also the dollars you don’t spend on jerseys, shirts, memorabilia, concessions, beer — oh man, all that beer money adds up, not just for you, but for owners, too. Margins matter, especially if you have the kind of owner who watches the margins like a hawk.
Note: to make this kind of behavior really effective, you actually have to stop supporting the team. This is a note to Washington fans. Yes, it’s harder than you might have imagined, but you have to stop going to the games and buying overpriced gear to make this work. You have to stop, like, one thing you’re doing, and not hand Snyder your money. If you hate the way he manages your team, just stop handing him money. Stop. STOPPPPP.
Make your fandom a protest
The Baghead route. Again, not entirely effective, but if you’ve already bought the ticket, the paper bag mask is ready when you are. Don’t try to bring signs in protesting ownership: they tend to get confiscated. Chanting works, though you may be asked to leave. This may be the team doing you a favor and improving your quality of life, for which you owe them a quiet thank you.
American fans don’t do this a lot in numbers because we’re too disorganized, for the most part.
However, British soccer fans have a long history of doing this at multiple levels of the sport. The results are mixed at best: Manchester United weathered a fan protest against the ownership of the Glazers with ease, while Newcastle fans did sort of prod owner Mike Ashley into spending money on the club’s roster after skimping on transfers for a while. Lower-tier team protests seem to work much better, but still: Owners don’t tend to sell teams because you ask them to, even if you do it en masse wearing color-coordinated t-shirts with anti-ownership slogans on them.
Make their life hell
There is so little you can do to accomplish this, but if you’re fond of tiny victories, then take it.
The choice for pissants determined to take just one chunk out of the dragon’s hide before getting smoked — making the owner’s life one degree more hellish than it is — requires discipline and stamina. You can’t just boo once: you have to boo, and boo, and keep on booing until the joke becomes a running joke becomes a tradition. You have to boo about your team at the games of other, totally different teams in different sports. You have to boo them on the street and, if necessary, at a urinal at a public restroom next to you.
You have to commit to this. You can’t take anything away from the owner. The owner has more money than you will ever have, most likely. Barring some brave exception, they have built a bubble of highly paid sycophants, suckups, yes-men, consultants bland functionaries, and spineless running buddies. Their children don’t go to your schools, they don’t vacation at the same places, and they don’t do the basic functions of daily living that the rest of us do. You won’t be able to boo them at the grocery store. There is a very good chance they haven’t been to a grocery store in years. They don’t live in the same country you live in, and don’t want to, really.
The only vulnerability someone as wealthy as a sports owner has is vanity. Formally adored by default in every other space in life, it’s important to deny them that. They won’t get it from the media, especially if they’re an NFL owner. (“Mister [owner]” from the NFL universe remains the most toadying, repellent address in sports.)
You have to make them feel like a loser, in other words, because there is nowhere else they will see an exam, a test, or a challenge in their life. This is the only thing you can rob them of after they robbed you of the simple irrational diversion of fanhood. You can take the toy they bought, and turn it into a mewling, complaining chunk of expensive sorrow in their hands, one that might print money, but that will never, ever do it without spitting in their face. You can take any joy they might derive from being the boss out of their hands, and do it as often as possible.
Few communities could carry this off. But if and when the time comes, I believe in you Philadelphia. We all do.
Wait it out
It’s an option. In fact, it’s the option that involves the fewest actual changes in your behavior. Change is hard! And hard things are bad. You could avoid them and simply let the noble rot of time and tide do the work for you.
Waiting has a few natural advantages. Unlike a lot of other things in life where you might feel powerless, disenfranchised, and otherwise steamrolled by forces beyond your control, reality does catch up to bad teams. There is no rhetoric, no weird identity politics, no subverted prejudices wrapped in appeals to emotion capable of erasing basic facts about a team.
You can’t duck wins and losses, or make up records, or scream “fake news!” when your team is 1-15, or loses by 40 points to a half-empty arena every night. The Browns are bad. There is film to prove it — so much film to prove it, actually. Outright lies people will accept in almost every other area of their life, they will reject in sports.
Because dude: I don’t care what you said, we lost to Georgia Southern at home. AT HOME.
Sometimes the badness becomes so obvious that even ownership takes notice, though that’s not a guaranteed outcome. There are free riders out there, owners content to skim off TV contracts while making the bare minimum effort to contribute. Even worse, there are a lot of owners out there who bought a team with their money like you might buy new exercise equipment: first as an enthusiastic lark, and later as a thing that gathers dust in the corner while slowly rusting.
This can and does go on for decades, but let’s be cynically optimistic for a moment.
Eventually, a team might descend so far into the abyss that something has to happen, if only for a brief, glorious moment. Teams need you on the hook, one way or another, and the spreadsheet will kick in where shame fails. If they have to pretend to compete to do that, they will, one way or another. Jeffrey Loria, regarded as one of the worst owners in sports, did preside over one tantalizing World Series championship in his first year with the Marlins before robbing the city of Miami at gunpoint for a stadium. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers under the Culverhouse family did, at one point, attempt to compete in football, and made the playoffs before a long dive into the trough. The Clippers under Sterling — yes, even the Clippers — built decent teams from time to time.
There’s a bottom, and eventually your team will hit it so hard even ownership hears the thud and has to do something about it.
And sometimes, just maybe, the sports fan living under the tyranny of the inept and wealthy benefits from the greatest disease of the aristocracy: Protracted familial cannibalism when the owner inevitably dies and disputes erupt over large estates. In the estate sale, the team is often nothing more than another ornate lamp or painting no one really wants for anything but cash. The next owner might care enough to make a good product, or failing that, at least want to sucker you in with a strong couple of seasons before falling back into the gutter of easy shared revenue and seat licenses.
A good solid family law dispute over ownership of your team might solve itself when the bad team, finally receiving its well-earned level of zero support locally, moves to a new city. They might sell to an owner desperate to bilk Las Vegas, San Antonio, or Los Angeles for a new monorail of a stadium. They might be the Cincinnati Bengals, and improve to the tune of “horrible to mediocre, but you can’t say that’s not improvement.”
Either way, the waiting fan’s outcomes are the easiest, emotionally speaking. The waiting fan is the sloth of the sports ecosystem. By not moving, the mold of indifference and pessimism grows on their fur. After a while, they begin to eat it, and maybe even get some natural camouflage and nutrition from it. They might even start to like it, after a while. When success comes, it probably tastes even better after all the fur-mold sandwiches.
If Cubs fans lived off them for over a century, anyone under the thumb of inescapable mismanagement can, too.
Monster Jam was the last memorable event in a stadium that begged to be forgotten.
Monster Jam fills up enough of the Georgia Dome — most of the bottom bowl, and a good chunk of the mezzanines and upper deck. There is competition in town — but there also probably isn’t a lot of Sunday night overlap between the monster truck crowd and the people across town at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium watching Atlanta United lose its first game ever to New York Red Bulls.
There are mostly dads, myself included, towing kids there with the promise of monster trucks and multiple concession stand runs.
One of these runs: for a $20 Monster Jam official Grave Digger sno-cone with commemorative Grave Digger cup with molded grinning skeleton face and flashing lights triggered via a button in its plastic forehead. I bought it; one $15 commemorative non-truck-specific Monster Jam sno-cone; a $15 pair of headphones/ear protectors, with rubber tires mounted around the ear cups for one child; a $20 pair of less-elaborate ear protection for the other kid, who could not be persuaded to get the cheaper ones because, “I need different daddy”; at least $30 worth of bribes in the form of food and drink to keep them in the stands for half the show; $0 in alcohol, somehow, because two children at a monster truck show keep you so busy and running that you cannot find the time to get drunk enough to deal with the children.
While waiting, a towheaded 3-year-old behind us pointed to the beer man selling $12 oil cans of Busch Light.
“Daddy, you could get a beer.”
“You know Daddy only drinks crown.”
The first thing I can remember about going to a live sports event involves DeBarge, and the memory is wrong. Wrong may not be the right word, actually. Better put, I misremembered because I was probably 6 years old, and 6-year-olds can’t be counted on to provide accurate testimony in a court of law or in a recollection involving the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers.
My dad took me to a Hawks game at the Omni. The Omni was the least-lovable building ever constructed, a black cube with tented pyramids of black sheet metal jutting from the roof, weird angular corner windows, and the street presence of a giant, menacing blast furnace. I thought it looked cool because it reminded me of the doomed spaceship in Disney’s The Black Hole. Kids have bad memories and deplorable taste in architecture.
The Omni was built to rust, to be an uncherished memory before it ever happened.
The first claim there is literal. By rusting, the steel elements of the building would become even more fused to each other. In its later years, it started to look like an overturned running shoe or waffle iron left outside to the elements. The designers reportedly did not factor in Atlanta’s subtropical climate, and the Omni kept rusting and rusting until the entire building had an incurable form of architectural arthritis. Holes appeared in the building’s frame, holes big enough for people to pass through without tickets or permission. Rather than fix the gaping holes in the building designed to rust in one of the United States’ most humid places, management instead put up chain-link fences along them.
The second claim, that the Omni was designed to be an uncherished memory, is a guess. The Hawks played there either way. My dad drove me down into the city with the radio on — never the rock station, but always the R&B station with Switch, Brick, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Gap Band, Roger and Zapp, or Kool and the Gang on. I knew the Hawks had a player named “Tree Rollins.” This was enough all by itself, but I would also get to go to Burger King for a kids meal, which, for a kid who was avowedly not into sports, was a low, low bribe bar to clear.
Tree Rollins totally looked like someone named Tree. I remember the Omni very much looking like the inside of a doomed spaceship, and that everyone was very excited that someone called Dr. J was there, even though he was evidently some off-brand version of Dr. J not equal to a previous version. There were men there with giant Jheri curls and Magnum, P.I. sunglasses and mustaches indicating that they were serious, wealthy, and just dangerous enough to wear a mustache. I remember the hair across all races and genders being massive and more carefully constructed than the arena they were standing in; I remember being one of the few kids in the building, and thinking that maybe, sometimes, my dad might just be taking me to stuff he liked in order to get out of the house and have a few too many beers by himself.
On the way home, I remember passing the few super-distinct pieces of the Atlanta skyline: the Peachtree Westin that Dar Robinson jumped out of for a Burt Reynolds stunt, the UFO-shaped alien cake of Fulton County Stadium where the Braves played and where my dad would later take us to sit in empty seats and pick up fiendish sunburns, the Georgia Capital that always seemed completely out of place in all that retro-futurism and brutalist forestry around it. That’s the kind of place Atlanta was and still is — a place where the past is what seems unnecessary, not the future.
The music had changed. My dad drove in silence and smoked Vantage cigarettes with the window cracked even though it was winter, I think, and cold enough to have the heat cranking. It was Quiet Storm time on the radio, and that meant Jeffrey Osborne, Marvin Gaye, Rita Coolidge, and Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass. DeBarge’s “All This Love” came on and the nylon string guitar solo played and I looked up and thought how the streetlights were on but still looked so dark against the streets and the houses of what I now know was a decimated Techwood.
I’m pretty sure since that song came out in 1982 that we’d already moved to Tennessee by then, but at a certain point emotional memories are immune to fact-checking. The fadeout and ride in the song is endless over the background singers going say you really love me baby/ say you really love me darling/for I really love you baby/sure enough love you darlin’
At the Georgia Dome, there is some of exactly what you think should be at a Monster Jam show in the South.
There was, for example, a terrifying man in the sleeveless Confederate flag shirt eight rows below our seats. I asked him if he knew where I could get ear protection before the race. He looked at me for about five seconds before responding because he:
I hope he was drunk, and also that he thought I was hitting on him.
The trucks have names ranging from the super-uninspiring and corporate — the FS1 Cleatus Truck! the Team Hot Wheels Firestorm! — to the classic and menacing (Bounty Hunter and El Toro Loco). There is a truck called Obsession and its unimaginatively named partner, Obsessed. One is called Ice Cream Man, easily the least-intimidating monster truck of all time because it comes out to tinkly ice cream van chimes, or the most unsettling because it plays a song synonymous with the sketchiest non-related regular cast member of most people’s childhoods — the neighborhood ice cream man who might have lived in the van he worked in.
There is a Monster Energy truck with green neon lights built into the undercarriage. I am here to report against my will that it looks absolutely and positively sick. It is called “the Monster Energy Truck” because there are two good monster truck names in the universe, and both are taken. (Grave Digger and Bigfoot, to be specific.)
The anthem is sung while a bald eagle flaps in slow motion on the end-zone video boards.
The Georgia Dome was built in 1992, and it will be imploded in the summer of 2017. It will never see its 30th birthday, and it will not be missed because it, too, was built to be forgotten. The last event in the dome will be Monster Jam. If you are from outside of the state, you will think it is appropriate because LOL REDNECKS; if you are from here, you will probably also think it is appropriate because LOL REDNECKS, but will get mad when anyone else says it.
For the record, the Dome didn’t even try to be interesting on the level of the Omni or Fulton County Stadium. It was fine but unmemorable as something you drove past, sat in, or saw in shots of the city skyline. Take a hotel bathtub, preferably one of the cheap ones, too shallow to do anything in but sit unhappily for five minutes before giving up and draining the water. Cover it with a large golf umbrella blown inside out by the wind. Solder the two together. Paint it first teal and maroon, because someone in 1991 thought putting the bedroom color scheme from a Florida vacation rental on the outside of a stadium in Atlanta was a good idea.
When you remember the Atlanta Falcons play football there, paint it in a new scheme with red and black in it to remind everyone of their existence. Don’t do this until 16 years after you open the stadium, and only nine years before its eventual demolition.
Monster Jam is the last event here. Other things happened before that. The Atlanta Falcons played mostly forgettable football here, unless you take out the Vick years, which you might want to given how they ended. If there were some way to keep the part where all the mostly African-American fans in the upper deck went bonkers the minute they started playing “Bring ’Em Out” for those teams, you should do that. That may be the most excited single concentration of minutes you could salvage from the team’s history at the Georgia Dome: Before the team played, but after they remembered they were going to watch the fastest player in the NFL touch the ball on every play. This is a happy memory. There aren’t a lot of those there.
It hosted a lot of college football, including the annual SEC Championship game. Tim Tebow cried on the sideline there after Alabama clipped Florida’s undefeated streak short in 2009; Les Miles in 2007 used his backup quarterback to win an SEC title there, and then a national title LSU somehow got with two losses later in New Orleans. Before that game he hustled every reporter in reach to a press conference where he denied Kirk Herbstreit’s report that he was going to take the Michigan job, and then with his chest at full inflation demanded that the room “have a great day.” I was there for that and, yes, it was just as confusing in person as it was on television.
There was Wrestlemania in 2011, when the Rock returned and I nearly flipped my laptop off a table when the glass broke and Stone Cold Steve Austin ripped down the entry ramp on an ATV like the Pope of All Shitkicking Rednecks. In 1994, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison punched each other while wearing helmets in fight during a football game, an event that easily clears the hurdle to being one of the top 25 most memorable moments in Atlanta history, and was also incredibly dumb. Those two circles overlap a lot here.
There were two Super Bowls in the Dome. The first was a forgettable one in 1994 where the Cowboys beat the Bills. This beating was different from the seven other Bills/Cowboys Super Bowls in the 1990s because the pregame show featured Kriss Kross, Charlie Daniels, the Georgia Satellites, and the Morehouse Marching Band doing a tribute to “Georgia Music Makers.” Charlie Daniels is from North Carolina but did a song about an unenforceable contract between the Devil and a mentally ill violin player, so by any standard he counted.
The second is best remembered for an unseasonably brutal ice storm and Ray Lewis picking up two murder charges from the Fulton County District Attorney after a very bad night out on the town with his friends. The Tennessee Titans came up a yard short in Atlanta, but most Nashville things measured in Atlanta terms fail by much, much more than that. Feel better thinking about it in those terms, Nashville.
There was also the time the tornado struck the Georgia Dome while I was inside it during the 2008 SEC basketball tournament, rippling the ceiling like water and throwing the scoreboard around like a weight on a fishing lure. That happened, too.
Other than all that, there’s not much else. Monster Jam will close out the building’s life, if you like to anthropomorphize a stadium no one ever thought to give a personality or memory. The seats will be auctioned off or sold to high schools for repurposing. The innards will be sold in stages, right down to a yard sale of whatever’s left in the building getting gutted and gaveled out right on the sidewalk outside the Dome on Northside Drive.
Sometime during the summer it will be imploded and become a parking lot for the new stadium. It’s a corporate-sponsored metallic oculus someone will probably remember as looking like a very old future. The Falcons and Atlanta United will call it home, and the Georgia Dome will be gone and not mourned. That’s fine, and I don’t want you to think for a second it isn’t. Some things are built to be forgotten, and the Georgia Dome is one of them.
The trucks spend the first half of the show racing by pairs in heats. They can sort of drift a corner — sort of, as much as a 10,000-pound truck can slide on dirt. The drivers don’t hammer the gas so much as they get up to speed, and then feather the throttle to keep the trucks moving with careful blasts of the engine. It’s like watching extremely short rallycross races run by farting whales in track shoes.
Finishing fast is interesting. Finishing sideways doing something reckless and badass is better, but finishing first and flying sideways across the finish line is best. This is particularly true if you can roll the truck over, hit the throttle, catch one enormous tire in the dirt on the end of the roll, and flip the entire vehicle back onto all four tires for a save, a round of WOOOOS and applause, and a pass to the next round of racing.
This happens twice in the racing segment of the show, which is two more times than anyone should be able to pull that off in the aforementioned 10,000-pound trucks. Grave Digger sacrificed itself for the crowd’s pleasure early — it hit a massive jump while trying to speed across the finish line, bouncing sideways, blowing out one enormous tire and a mess of important-looking metal stuff in the chassis on impact, and then rolling to stop on its ceiling while soaking up the applause. Grave Digger left the arena with three good wheels, one completely destroyed tire, and the limp of a champion who’d given their all. If I had been drinking, I might have teared up a little.
The second half is the freestyle, the more entertaining part where Monster Jam ditches the entire concept of racing, and just lets drivers try to tear apart their cars for the crowd. The drivers have two minutes to run through their routine. The most popular runs don’t even make it that long, though. They end abruptly and satisfactorily when the driver rolls their truck onto its roof off an ill-advised but spectacular jump, breaks an axle or blows out a tire, or cripples the thing trying to land a backflip.
The Monster Energy truck — the one with the absolutely sick neon — whipped itself around during the freestyle event with such force that its flimsy body panels sheared off in every direction. One truck just did donuts for the last 20 seconds of their routine. If a monster truck rips donuts on dirt, there is an involuntary response from the body. “WOOOOOOOO” leaps from the diaphragm. You can’t fight it, and wouldn’t want to if you could.
The MCs yell out this or something like it repeatedly.
“DOIN’ IT ONE LAST TIME FOR THE GEORGIA DOME.”
It doesn’t have much effect, not even when a local DJ yells it out during a bike race between three audience members racing on children’s bikes. But then, the Georgia Dome is used to quiet echoing off its cavernous walls, or having fan noise piped in to ricochet between its empty seats. There is nothing more to give from this afternoon’s audience, for one: Being at Monster Jam is getting blasted in the face for three hours with engine noise, and then coated with a gentle drizzle of dirt floating down between runs. Maximum audience participation is clapping and yelling just loudly enough to be heard over engines that burn a gallon of fuel a minute. There is no 11, or giving it up any harder than one is already giving it up.
Very few people seemed to realize this was the end, or at least attached any significance to it, or cared whether anyone would begin gutting the building the instant the last earth-mover carried out the dirt.
We had to leave three trucks into the freestyle when both of their attention spans wore out, and were unrecoverable. We left before the Georgia Dome paid one last tribute to itself: A grease fire broke out in a concession stand, which was quickly put out only after filling a concourse with smoke and scaring the hell out of a few patrons. Remember that on the way out: that the building tried to save everyone the trouble of demolition by burning itself down.
Walking out with my kids, they were about the same age I was when I left the Omni with my dad at the Omni in 1982, or 1983, or whenever it was in fuzzy kid-time. They saw the new stadium next door and thought it looked pretty much like a spaceship, or like someplace where Skylanders would live.
That is exactly what the Omni and Fulton County Stadium looked like to me as a kid —so much so that later, when my dad and another dad would awkwardly hang out for the benefit of their sons’ juvenile need to socialize with other dudes, my friend Jim and I would sit in the backseat as they drove and point out the buildings we would own in the future. He’d take the Westin, and keep all his Legos there. I’d take Fulton County Stadium, and reserve it exclusively for my collection of helicopters. A city was a place to be had, a thing to be purchased for your convenience.
Kids, weirdly enough, understand that a city is just something to be bought and sold.
Later, weirder, less-tenable ideas creep into your head: That it could be home, that the buildings you can name mean something beyond the names, that there might be some kind of resonant harmony between you and this random system of properties and spaces. Sometime someone might superimpose a sports team into that imaginary relationship, making this city not just a place, but a place for you, and people like you, and that all of you can thrive here. It is special. You are special, and the team, its players, and all the spaces they pass through and live in are special and remarkable and unlike anything else in the world.
There is a magic you can believe about a place as an adult that children do not even begin to believe or accept. A 7-year-old would laugh you out of the room, probably while telling you that the new place was much better, both because it looked like a place where Skylanders would live, and also because it was new. New things are better, and you should always take the new thing.
That shouldn’t be hard to accept. Take the new thing, even if the nagging, haunting feeling of living somewhere boils down to a problem with you, with that thing where you’re looking for something in tangible space to consider a landmark, a guidepost. To consider something significant, if only so that you, in relation to it, can have a bit of that significance. The city I live in makes that hard to do, though there’s an honesty in that constant self-digestion and auto-demolition. Do not get attached. It, and everything in it, will eventually move, just like the teams and the people who call it home.
That’s the rational, reasonable thing to think, yet even with an intentionally blank, mostly unmemorable empty space like the Georgia Dome I want something to be there, to definitively have happened there. There should be a definite something there, thinks some deeply schizophrenic part of my brain that doesn’t want so much as a garden shed to collapse around me without some memory attached to it. Otherwise it’s just a thing — and by extension, so is the city, and the very personally important me I’ve attached to it.
I have a definite thing to attach myself to here. After all, I thought for a few seconds on March 14, 2008 that I was going to die on the floor of the Georgia Dome on press row at the SEC men’s basketball tournament.
I thought Kentucky fans were stomping their feet in unison on the bleachers at first, but the noise swelled, and swelled more, and grew so loud and limitless all at once. It felt limitless in the sense of being infinitely powerful with no range or end to the noise, so loud and yet so obviously just getting started on the way to a theoretical full volume. What do you think a tornado at pace is? It’s actually just clearing its throat and warming up, volume-wise. It’s whispering, holding back. You just hear it as a roar.
There wasn’t even a shudder from impact. There was just the sensation that the entire building was next to an immense floor buffer, spinning and vibrating at thousands of RPM. When that vibration turned into waves the roof flapped like a subwoofer, the air vents started spitting out pieces of insulating foam, and for one second I weighed the options of dying standing up and being crushed by the falling roof and lighting, or taking my chances ducking under a table, only to be crushed by all that plus one flimsy plywood table. The lights swayed 10 to 15 feet in either direction. The waves got stronger, and the entire overturned bathtub of the stadium was now being thumped by a very pissed off janitor pushing that giant floor buffer into the side of the Georgia Dome.
I was sitting next to Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. That would have been memorable for me, at least, getting crushed next to a legendary announcer, in the few seconds I had to have a last memory. If I’d heard Verne say “oh my” as it collapsed, it would have been my last tweet, and the RTs and favs would be infinite.
Instead of bearing down at full speed and colliding with the Dome, though, the tornado drunkenly staggered into the Georgia Congress Center next door, then down Marietta Street and into Cabbagetown before dissipating into the night. Not knowing what else to do, I walked out and took pictures of holes in the walls of the Congress Center, and thought about how great I felt about not dying in the Georgia Dome that night.
Leaving the last event at a building that was designed to be forgotten, I didn’t even really think about the one thing I should remember and attach to the spot.
Instead I thought about the only song I think about when I think about the irrational need for a place to give me something only a human can — especially this place, the first place I did so many things, like leaning my head against the window listening to DeBarge after a Hawks game. That need will never make sense, no matter how many games you watch there, or how many moments you spend there. It won’t make sense, not even after years of silently asking a place to just talk back to you once after you spend years monologuing to it. To look at a place that eats its own every day, and buries its stadiums and buildings and places under like daisies beneath a plow, and ask it, as if you were some exception to the rule, to sing the outro to you:
say you really love me baby
say you really love me darling
for I really love you baby
sure enough love you darlin’
Football as we know it is done, because the lawyers are here. When the lawyers arrive, things as you know them are over. After making an initial beachhead with concussion lawsuits in the NFL, The Lawyers (capital letters necessary) are pushing inland and making great, great gains. There are lawsuits against helmet manufacturers, against the NFL, the NCAA … anyone with a finger on the game at this point, in the year 2017, will be liable for the game’s excesses, violences, and lasting damage.
Do not for one second read that as “blame The Lawyers.” You can if you like. It’s fun, and no one wants to stand in the way of fun as long as you don’t actually mean blame The Lawyers. Like foot soldiers in a war, lawyers are merely rubber ducks on a great tidal swell of football-related backlash, doing what they are told, and being pushed by currents sweeping back from a century of American football’s flailing about with no regard for itself or fellow swimmers.
Football is not under attack from anything other than football. Football declared war on itself long ago, and advanced the campaign in a thousand small steps. In 1905 it outlawed the Flying Wedge and legalized the forward pass, but stopped short of further liberating linemen and backs from constant impact by loosening the rules on eligible linemen. In the 1970s player size followed the national obesity curve upward, increasing the m in F=ma to unprecedented and increasingly dangerous levels, making the F (force) involved in the game greater than ever.
When the 2000s rolled around and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) emerged as a real correlation with the game of football, the NFL and others followed the noble example of tobacco companies by falsifying research, denying all charges, and focusing on selling the product to children.
That is what sent the lawyers to football’s shores in the first place, and now deep into its heartland and beyond. Not a sense of aggrieved offense by coastal elites at the uncompromising game of the American interior. Not the allure of potential settlement money hitting the nostrils of the American legal community.
What sent them was the slow realization by parents that Pop Warner football could be the gateway drug that leads their promising, unblemished child to an adulthood with a degenerative brain condition. What sent them was the understanding that over time, American schools from middle school up had institutionalized and venerated a game capable of seriously harming those who played it — and even protected it in law and beyond in the form of societal and cultural protections no court order could budge from good standing.
Football asked for this to happen. It asked for liability insurance to become so expensive it might price out substantial numbers of high school teams from even having programs. It encouraged its own violence and actively discouraged research on that violence’s long-term effects. At the highest levels of the game in particular — the NFL — those in charge encouraged a game of head-first violence, and made that violence an inseparable and often explicit part of their brand.
Yes, other sports have concussion problems — hockey, most notably, followed by soccer and wrestling. But The Lawyers aren’t here to talk to you about them. They are here to talk about football. And if The Lawyers are here, then football as we know it is already dead, or at the very least obsolete.
The Lawyers are not the people you want to rebuild or evolve the game. Neither are the corporate overlords of the NFL, who will only embrace innovation and a real honesty about the game’s potential long-term consequences at what may be non-figurative gunpoint. They cannot and should not be relied on because they are too invested in the current system to have any incentive to change.
Players, coaches, stakeholders, fans, and other invested parties cannot rely on the NFL for other reasons.
One is simple math: To make the biggest impact possible on the game, those who want football to survive must target the largest slice of the game. Football remains the number one participation sport in the country in high schools, with over a million players in 2015-16. For most of the people who play football in the United States, their exposure to the game in a serious and organized fashion begins and ends there. Football is not owned by anyone. If it were, though, the largest shareholders would be the ones playing on Friday nights.
Another reason to not wait for the NFL or college football to change first: The game of football can’t afford to wait, and needs to thrive where it lives, not where it is most monetized and commodified. Interventions suggested to improve the game at the highest levels tend to rely on expensive equipment, increasingly elaborate rulebooks, and advanced medical technology.
Using those as a stopgap to patch over the glaring issues in football’s foundations is only that: a stopgap, and an expensive one that won’t work for the game as a whole over time. Your high school, unlike St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, cannot afford a squad of robot tackling dummies at $8,295 a pop. A rural high school in Utah will not have the mythical handheld medical equipment needed to diagnose a concussion instantly, nor have officials with the resources and support needed to parse out the complexities of the latest targeting rules.
In this future, the game of the American people — its most popular sport — will become something only available to those who can afford the resources to play it, much less watch it.
The game needs to change. It has changed once before, when football was a smaller pastime largely limited to colleges and universities. It still took a standing president of the United States’ intervention to temper the violence of the sport — and only then, after actual deaths occurred on the field. The game wasn’t the heavily leveraged, culturally embedded, and highly lucrative billion-dollar industry it is today. The odds of significant change happening now without legal intervention, given what the sport is and who profits most from it, are very, very long.
If — and it is a huge if — football will survive, then its revamp should start simple. Those who want football to continue in one form or another should think of the basic building blocks of football itself as changeable, updatable programming. They should start at the grassroots of the sport to affect the largest number of possible teams and games and leagues playing the sport. They should think about the nature of the game itself, and how to keep as much of it as possible without leaning into the excesses of football as it is currently played.
It should start now. Football 3.0 is coming, and this is what it will look like if it wants to survive.
The chief variable affecting any and all discussions of football and its risks is force: Force applied through hitting, tackling, and the random collisions of any game. Force causes concussions; Concussions are strongly correlated with degenerative brain diseases like CTE; CTE and other associated long-term neurological disasters are the chief reason youth participation in football has been down or flat recently, and also the thing driving the current wave of lawsuits and legal drama surrounding the NFL and other leagues.
Force is at the core of football, and it is also what could kill football. Curbing the game’s plague of force-related issues — without creating an entirely new sport and burying the old one completely — means dealing with force as a necessary evil at worst, and as a prohibited but inevitable ghost in the machine at best.
The future of football will be about reducing force wherever possible, redirecting it, or eliminating it altogether.
The bad news is that the equation can’t change: F=MA, and always will. If it’s assumed that football will be a game of reduced force, then it’s also assumed there will still be some degree of force via the basic identity of football as a contact sport. Bringing the ball carrier to ground, blocking another player, moving through living, breathing traffic — these are all basic elements of the game. Without them, football is handball without nets.
The lone good part about this equation: There are variables to work with here, and they are flexible. Acceleration (at least to the point of attack) can be redirected or eliminated in some cases. Mass can be lowered by either rule or game design, and the product of force itself can be redirected or dispersed through rules, further tweaks to game design, and playing technique.
There are two other variables here that matter. The first is space, both in terms of football’s standard playing field, and in terms of how the players are allowed to line up and function within it. The second variable is time, and within it the number of repeated exposures to/opportunities for impact.
If reducing the impact in football while keeping as much of the essential contact of the game is a goal, then there is another way to change the game for the better: cut unnecessary impacts as much as possible.
Schemers have already found one way to do this and it has been a part of football for the better part of 40 years: Spread players out and create a game of players in space, rather than a clustered mass of beef in cleats pounding away in close quarters.
Spacing out offensive players created a greater chance for a ballcarrier to find open grass. As a (largely unintentional)* side effect, players also had less traffic to deal with, and more of a chance of avoiding repeated hits fighting through blocks and clustered tacklers.
*I talked to Mike Leach via a phone interview. He doesn’t believe the game has much to improve on in terms of new rules. “We really don’t need to change the game, I think.” Most coaches echoed the same sentiments: that football was inherently risky, and that was something accepted by all players. At the same time, many were surprisingly open to changes in the game when you suggested them — right down to extreme ideas like removing helmets and changing the number of players on the field. Coaches are single-minded, but shockingly open-minded provided the idea did not get in the way of winning.
Washington State coach Mike Leach, and his fellow Air Raid guru Hal Mumme, also experimented with spacing along the offensive line. Rather than lining up in close quarters in three-point stances with a hand on the ground, Air Raid linemen began each play basically standing up, ready to pass block.
They did something else new and different, too: they stood farther apart than any other linemen, sometimes six feet apart. What looked like madness turned out to have a lot of method behind it. Not only did quarterbacks have wider passing lanes between and over their linemen, but running backs suddenly had wider run lanes.
That’s relevant for two reasons. One: Those sub-concussive, continuous blows defensive and offensive linemen take on every play are repetitive, brutal force — particularly in the run game, where a literal butting of heads happens on every play. That violence doesn’t serve anyone well in terms of entertainment value, or in terms of long-term safety for linemen. Spacing it out, and turning every block into a one-on-one situation with carefully enforced rules about contact to the head, eliminated some of the lowest value and highest cost spectacle on the field.
Two: back to traffic management. Many of the biggest, most frequent collisions at or past the line of scrimmage happen in the run game between linebackers and running backs. In standard or tight offensive line setups — where linemen are shoulder to shoulder — the running lanes created can be narrow at best.
That clumping of mass moving at high speed in the middle of the field often sets up brutal collisions between running backs and linebackers. Think of Ray Lewis and Eddie George in their prime, hitting each other head-first forever in a narrow hallway: That’s the running back vs. linebacker matchup in the conventional run game, and that’s the series of constant face-to-face impacts that likely reduced lions of the midfield like Junior Seau to CTE cases.*
*That setup is so fundamental to the core of football’s identity that it is literally a fundamental: the Oklahoma drill, whose variants all involved a.) compressed space and b.) at least two players pitted head-to-head in a potential high-impact situation.
Note the clarifier there: a potential high-impact situation. There is the possibility the ballcarrier makes the tackler miss. That possibility of escape and avoiding contact goes down by large percentages when the space is constricted. If wide splits were not just the norm, but required by rule and enforced, would that theoretically give ballcarriers coming out of the backfield more of a chance of escape, and thus shave off a substantial margin of bone-rattling hits?
In addition to what looks like horizontal spacing to the overhead/TV cam viewer, consider lateral spacing. Defensive linemen and offensive linemen in the Canadian Football League start a full yard apart from each other. In comparison, linemen at the snap in the NFL start just eleven inches, or the width of the ball, apart from each other.
Because there are no easy solutions in life, the benefits of starting three feet from your opponent on the line come with some definite disadvantages. The main one should be obvious to anyone who’s taken even a joking three-point stance in a backyard football game: Both linemen have space to take at least one step, upping the acceleration they can get, and thus increasing the total amount of force in the equation.*
*There was one suggestion that went too far: starting linemen in a clinch, thus eliminating the instant impact that happens at each snap of the ball. Bob Stitt, the football coach at the University of Montana, objected: “Now you just eliminate scheme in the run game.”
All this tweaking at the line of scrimmage and spacing raises the question: If football is going to be safer, and survive, is the battle in the trenches the first thing to go?
After all, flag football removes almost all contact along the line, leaving offensive linemen to serve as little more than juking traffic cones. In some versions of flag football, there’s no offensive line at all — just like several variations of seven-on-seven football camp play, a pass-dominated version of the game used primarily to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Arena Football League only requires that offenses have four players at the line of scrimmage, and defenses have three. In almost every variation of the game created since Teddy Roosevelt led the charge to modernize the game in 1905, the first thing to go in terms of numbers and importance has been the lineman. (Unless you’re Stanford football, but they’re an anomaly in an otherwise slimming trend, schematically speaking.)
The 300-pound leviathan may also become a relic of the game for other reasons.
The other variable in football from a safety perspective is the “m” in F=ma — mass.
The progressive bloat of the American populace and the corresponding rise in the size of football players is well-worn territory now. Almost any comparison will do, because they all show the same familiar trend, presented with extremity and consistency.
For instance: The 1955 Oklahoma Sooners went undefeated and won the national title with a roster where the heaviest player — left tackle Steve Champlin — tipped the scales at a whopping 225 pounds. The 2017 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, by contrast, had 15 players over 300 pounds, and defensive backs like 220-pound Nate Ebner, who weigh more than the Sooners starting linemen on both sides of the ball.
Or take the individual case. There’s former Baylor tight end LaQuan McGowan, who played at 405 pounds. Jared Lorenzen of the New York Giants played quarterback at 300 pounds; Levon Kirkland of the Pittsburgh Steelers played linebacker at 275 pounds, give or take whatever he ate pregame. Even cornerbacks and punters have gotten heavier.
Everyone, at every position in the NFL, has gotten larger over time.
More importantly, not even the switch to a spread-out game has stopped the race to put as much poundage at every position as possible. With all that mass and ass on the field at once, there is more potential energy on the field than ever before — and it all moves as fast or faster as it ever did.
So if football’s evolution involves mitigating the massive forces exerted on players, there is another simple variable: require players to bring less mass to the party.
One option is instituting weight limits for players — something that already happens at the Pop Warner levels and in Sprint Football, a variation of the game where players must weigh no more than 178 pounds. (They must also have more than 5 percent body fat, in order to prevent players starving themselves too much to make weight.) The most unique suggestion: Allow football teams to have as many people on the field as they like, but limit the total amount of weight to a flat 2400 pounds, aka the “one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses” system of football weight management.
Setting weight limits could cause a whole different range of problems: players going to unhealthy limits to make weight; the difficulty of weighing every single member of a football team like cattle before every game; the many, varied, and creative lengths teams and players might go to in order to cheat the system. Imagine the horror of a weight cut — a deeply unpleasant, miserable experience any high school wrestler or MMA enthusiast is all too familiar with — and you’re with us. Faced with one type of enforced and encouraged type of disordered eating, football players would simply be trading it for another.
Weight classes and limits also only serve one purpose: to reduce force. There is another option, one relying less on overt regulation, and more on changing the demands of the game on athletes while opening the game up even further: make the field bigger, both longer and wider, and open up the offensive game by making players run more.
This is sort of like buying a mansion to help you lose weight (“the two-mile walk from the kitchen to the bedroom really put a dent in my caloric deficit”) but it might be worth considering.
Football teams in the era of spread offenses and nickel defenses have already moved further and further away from traditional crowded run schemes. Stretching the field along either axis creates more space, making room for missed tackles, more open field running, and requires a leaner, fitter athlete.
Specifically, building a deeper end zone avoids much of the constriction and heavy traffic impacts seen in the red zone. It also has the non-safety related side effect of opening up the end zones for offensive play-callers. The CFL’s field is longer and wider, and features a 20-yard deep end zone. There aren’t a whole lot of stats on CFL red zone concussions versus NFL red zone concussions, true, but the dynamics of the game are quantifiably different re: scoring. As of 2014, CFL teams scored about three more points per game, passed for more yardage, and ran the ball fewer times per game than the NFL.
The safety difference between the two games may be marginal. However, football is a game of margins, and margins matter when talking about not one, but many different little things to help make the game safer.
Acceleration is less easy to control than mass. The emphasis on speed in football has coincided with a gradual but real increase in overall player speed — particularly speed gained in a short amount of space. The 40-yard dash has become the standard for measuring straight line speed because football players rarely run further than 40 yards. In automotive terms, top speed matters much less than a player’s 0-60 time.
No one wants a slower game. However, there is one simple edit eliminating a lot of opportunities for the kind of long, high-speed runs taken at targets that also happen to be running a long way at high speed: Cutting the kickoff and punt return from the game completely.
This isn’t even a controversial suggestion, or one that isn’t by some measure already happening. The NFL has already toyed with reducing returns, moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line in 2011, and then in 2016 testing a rule moving all touchbacks to the 25-yard line instead of the 20.* Greg Schiano, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and current defensive coordinator of the Ohio State Buckeyes, has advocated for the complete abandonment of the kickoff altogether.
Pop Warner football has already eliminated the kickoff, removing the play from all games in ten-and-under play. If the kickoff is already out of the largest youth football league in the nation, it won’t be long for the rest of the game, either. Add in eliminating punt returns, and football cuts the two greatest consistent opportunities for acceleration at the highest speed out of its force-heavy system.
*Ironically, the 2016 rule change backfired and produced more returns and fewer touchbacks, a warning to anyone who believes more rules will change the game in predictable ways. Returners, given deeper kicks to return, simply kept running them out of the end zone. Returners, under any rules, are going to try to return kicks.
The repeated application of force in football involves another variable not represented in the equation: Time.
Maybe we shouldn’t think of it as “time playing football,” but as two things: “number of interactions in a period of time” seems bulky and overly academic. It’s way easier to say snaps or plays — opportunities for impact and all the nasty things that come with that repeated impact.
That number, at least in the NFL, has been pretty consistent over time. College football games, however, have gotten progressively longer, both because of the college clock rules and the advent of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. Those offenses run more plays; those plays usually pick up more first downs. First downs stop the clock in college football, and games creep closer and closer to the 3-1/2 hour mark.*
*The 2016-17 National Title game, for instance, started at 8:17 p.m. Eastern time, and ended at 12:25 a.m., taking a total of 4 hours and 8 minutes to complete. Clemson ripped off 99 plays against Alabama — an obscene number of plays in the NFL, but not unusual for modern college football.
The hurry-up has its own issues outside of safety — it requires vigilant officiating, for one, and a small but dedicated crew of coaches despise it — but few want it to disappear in the name of shortening games. The hurry-up is entertaining, creates more offense and more scoring, and often allows overmatched teams to stay in games longer against superior competition. It is one way to play the game of many, and part of football’s basic DNA is the freedom to scheme, plan, and move players and the tempo of play around as you like.
Rather than dictating a specific speed of play, the easiest fix is enforcing what’s already there: the prescribed length of the game itself. First downs in the college game should not stop the clock. Let it run. The clock is the clock, and barring injury timeouts, teams may work as slowly or as quickly within 60 minutes as they please.
The other issue solved by changing clock rules: Game length from a spectator’s perspective, both in the stadium and watching on a screen.
The in-game experience of watching a football game is painfully constipated by ad breaks and the dreaded man in the red cap who walks onto the field for stoppages. The test for this among football fans is that a lot of them even know who the man in the red hat — the link between the studio and the game — is. At home the experience is seamless, but in the stands you can see every wire.*
*This is meant quite literally now, thanks to the overhead cam rigs at every major game. The watershed moment for a college fan realizing that every game is recorded inside a poorly constructed, non-climate-controlled studio is Marvin McNutt of Iowa nearly getting blindsided by a falling Skycam in the 2011 Insight Bowl. At modern football’s most extreme, the football players can be an inconvenience to equipment designed to record them playing.
The on-screen experience, too, is an inflated, overlong commitment for many fans. The “100 commercials, 11 minutes of action” rule remains in effect in the NFL, where the league’s championship game features just 12 minutes of actual action spread out across four to five hours of pregame and postgame broadcast time.
That is a quality of life issue for fans — especially potential younger fans who have never lived in a world where they can’t watch exactly what they want when they want at their own pace. Live sports broadcasts, more than ever, can’t be any longer than they have to be. This goes double for football, which in 2016 experienced either flat or declining viewership at all levels.
The most valuable franchise in sports is the Dallas Cowboys, but three of the top five are soccer teams: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United. The world’s most valuable sports franchises function and thrive on games broadcast without commercial interruption, and sponsored in large part by on-field advertising, subscription fees, and team sponsorships.
It’s not the preference of the NFL, sure. But it has been done, and done well, and done by successful sports franchises. The future of American football probably involves embracing things currently considered heretical to the NFL and its airtight branding. There will be sponsors on uniforms, and in-game advertising on the stands, and whatever else the leagues and their television partners can plaster onto a TV screen — if only because the attention spans of the audience will only get shorter, and their patience for enduring even the biggest and most coveted live sports broadcasts more scarce.
Safety has been at best an intermittent concern for football management, but money? Money always gets their attention. If there’s a way to neatly avoid broadcast overruns and make game length more predictable, then yes:, teams and leagues and conferences will suddenly be interested in safety and game length.
The last variable is the one mentioned first by coaches and players: Technique.
That is unusual in one sense: Technique is the most human, varied, and inconsistent part of football’s basic dynamics and gameplay. If it could be perfected, there would be no helmet-to-helmet hits, no fumbles, and no jobs for coaches to teach technique for longer than a week or so at a time.
Technique is the part players and coaches can work on, perfect, and dictate as policy and practice. That technique, in a future where football has to express less force as a game, must change. Some in the NFL already know that, and are at least incrementally working towards it by stealing wholesale from rugby.
There is a saying rugby coaches and players are fond of saying, usually when they’re around football players and coaches: “Rugby is a tackling sport, while football is a collision sport.”*
*The saying is a variation on a quote from Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty. His original line: “Football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”
Rugby may seem like a strange or even ill-advised place to look for solutions to football’s problems. It has its own problems — serious, serious injury problems, including concussion problems of its own on top of a paralysis risk due to the scrum.* It, too, is a contact sport that can’t begin to disavow its basic violence. Embracing rugby’s techniques, at first glance, might seem like insanity.
*Rugby is itself in the midst of its own internal debate over player size, safety, and the rulebook. The line-out is ridiculously dangerous even by American football’s standards. Still, one college rugby coach I interviewed said the degree of violence in the basic interaction of tackling has no comparison. “We go to football practice and watch football players make routine tackles that would get you thrown out of a game. Our jaws drop.”
The saying is accurate, though. Tackling is formalized in rugby; the process, by rule, involves bringing the ballcarrier to ground. Football tackles are more freeform. A player can tackle a ballcarrier by bringing them to the ground shoulder-first. They may also drive through the player with the shoulder, making no attempt to bring them to the ground. Both are completely legal — provided no contact to the head is made.*
*Reminder of how recent the cultural reform regarding helmet-to-helmet hits is: The opening logo of the NFL’s Monday Night Football used the image of two helmets smashing together until 2006.
The Seattle Seahawks in particular have preached the virtues of the “rugby tackle,” i.e. form tackling designed to bring people to ground. It has, in limited use, made for better football. The Seahawks consistently finish near the top of the league in defense, particularly in tackling and yards allowed after catch. But more importantly for the purposes of creating a game that can survive long-term, the Seahawks finish towards the bottom of the league in reported concussions annually.*
*Reported concussions vs. unreported concussions is a thorny, difficult issue here given the number of concussions that aren’t diagnosed properly by sideline officials, or that are unreported by players not wanting to lose a single snap of play to injury. The data is imperfect, but it is also a start.
Yet there’s some logic in looking to football’s direct ancestor for answers. Rugby also features the kind of impact football tackling has, but contains much, much more of it. The average American football game has about 79 tackles, while a rugby game contains around 221 different collisions between players. Rugby is statistically about as dangerous as football in terms of total numbers of concussions — but mostly because rugby produces so many more opportunities for contact.*
*The NFL plays just 16 games per season. Rugby manages to produce a similar amount of reported head trauma with almost three times the amount of collisions per game, and with many, many more games. The NRL regular season, the Australian Premier League of rugby, is 23 games long all by itself. That doesn’t include preseason matches, international obligations for players, the finals series (their playoffs), and other exhibition matches. Invert that comparison, and think about the horrors of football’s physics. In many fewer games, football manages to do as much or more damage than rugby.
Let’s not limit rugby’s influence to just tackling. For football in particular, there is an inextricable link between technique and equipment. All of those rugby collisions happen without a helmet. People have considered the helmetless player in trying to pull football, and the NFL in particular, back from the brink.
It is not as insane as it sounds. Players, most notably Hines Ward in 2012, have suggested it. The helmet, introduced as little more than leather skullcap with flaps to prevent ears from being torn off, is not what it started as. It has evolved into full-on armor, less a method of protection at this point, and more a weapon, a point of attack driven into the opponent.
There is some data supporting this. (Some.) A University of New Hampshire study tried it for just five minutes during a few practices a week, fitting players with a head-impact sensor to measure any possible reduction in head hits. Even that marginal reduction in helmet use lowered the overall number of head impacts by 28 percent — a startling drop in any context, but even more so before you consider that just a small slice of the overall total of practice time was used.
That is just one study, but it’s intriguing enough to back up what football players alone will tell you anecdotally. The helmet is as much a weapon as it is protection. Whether it means eliminating the facemask, introducing lighter alternative headgear, or getting rid of it altogether.*
* “The helmet definitely gives you that feeling of being invincible.” That’s former NFL lineman George Foster when I ask him if removing helmets makes any sense. “I don’t know what the overall effect would be, but yes, if you take that facemask or that helmet off, they’ll get their head out of the situation real quick.”
The final factor in improving technique will be reforming and simplifying the system of rewards, punishments, and rules governing player conduct on the field. In other words, make the rules plain so that football can spend less time and energy litigating itself as an event, and more time in play.
To wit: The NFL has an 88-page rulebook. The National Federation of State High School Association’s rulebook stands at 116 pages. The NCAA’s massive rulebook is 218 pages in total, and has a separate casebook for officials to study specific situations. There are numerous websites designed to keep officials fluent and fluid in their understanding of the rules.*
*For fun, take just one of those quizzes. Afterwards, marvel at how little you know about the game you thought you understood.
Reading through any of those rulebooks is only recommended if you want to understand what a technical, overwrought, and overwritten piece of pseudo-criminal code the rules of American football are. Any future where the rules of football are not made clearer and simpler is one where the rulebook continues to bloat. More rules make slower officials; slower officials make slower games; slower games make for bad football, an unwatchable product for a game competing with shorter attention spans.
The vagaries of the rulebook also make for more hesitant play. Somewhat counter-intuitively, hesitating on the field of play can get a player injured just as quickly as blindly blowing through a situation without thinking. This is especially true for defenders, who under current contact rules often have no idea how fast or slow they’re supposed to go in a tackling situation — and who could be ejected by rule for helmet-to-helmet contact even if they do everything correctly. Those are interactions, mind you, which often take place in half-seconds of action.
The overall sense from talking to players and coaches is that contact rules often give little discretion to the referees in how they enforce them. Subjectivity is a dangerous thing to bring to officiating, but over-prescription is, too. The rulebook already has a series of flagrant vs. inadvertent distinctions, but these should be simplified to the point where a referee, working by a generously worded rulebook, has enough discretion in a game to make those calls in a quick and decisive manner.
A lot of the future of football simply involves stealing good things from other sports, and officiating is no different. Red cards and yellow cards for fouls may be subjective, but they also allow officials to control physical games with obvious, clear signals.
Rugby uses them, soccer uses them, and in a full-pitch game like American football, their arrival is overdue, if only for one reason: A personal foul is a judgment, like many other legal-ish football penalties. A yellow or red card, though — that’s a stimulus, a signal, a clear indication the player in question has done something personally distasteful to the game.*
*Are we suggesting that the tedious cycle of awarding yardage to the other team for personal foul penalties by the other team, instead of putting the burden on the player, is a boring thing to watch? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. If there were some way of slimming down the rulebook to eliminate false start/offsides penalties, endless procedural penalties, and substitution and eligibility infractions, we would. Mike Pereira is great at his job, and explains and interprets the rules of football as well as anyone on television. Counterpoint: a game should not require Mike Pereira to explain the vagaries of its rules to you.
They work well, and are a more economical way of controlling game flow and player conduct than stopping the entire game every three minutes and addressing the public at length with a list of charges and subsequent punishments. Ed Hochuli’s biceps aside, officials and officiating are not an attraction of the game. They shouldn’t be treated like one, or forced by design to be one.
CODA: THE PEOPLE’S GAME
All of this re-engineering comes with a warning, and then a statement of purpose.
That warning is that football, even 20 years from now, will never, ever be completely safe. No sport really is — not golf, a sport where 54,000 people every year end up in the emergency room when they are hit by errant drives and golf carts; not recreational cycling, not skiing or swimming or any other activity where humans take the not-insignificant risk of leaving their house and putting their bodies in motion.
Football does hold the unique identity and accompanying risk of being a sport encouraging repeated, enthusiastic, and yes, violent contact. Any future involving something recognizable as football has to include at least an element of that, and should. Part of the innate appeal of the sport, even if only played in a backyard or recreationally, is the violence, the speed, the chase, and yes: the understanding that getting caught or beat might mean contact with another player.
That is the crucial difference football needs to embrace and understand. A sport that is watched and not played is a bloodsport, a spectacle. It has no investment from those watching, no claim held, no understanding of the cost, the experience, the time, the stress, or the reality of the thing being observed. The slow reaction to the issue of head trauma at every level is a perfect demonstration of this effect: Without actual stakes, and divorced from their own reality, fans and observers can’t really even being to grasp a splinter of the violence they see.
Football might not need more stakeholders in order to survive as a product. A sport that was once internationally beloved can continue profitably for years without widespread participation. (See: Boxing.)
Football does need more stakeholders to survive as a game, though. The people who need to save what may be left of the game so that it can survive are the stakeholders themselves: coaches, players, and the people who understand how to make games and then play them. They have to act now, or risk losing the game to its worst tendencies encouraged by its worst landlords.
The sum parts of the game of football should be made to be as close to free as possible. Someone will have to own the rest, including its future. It may as well be the people who want it to survive as a game, not as a business. The game of football has to belong to those who play it and love it. That starts the way the first version of the game started: in a field on open grass, running.
The climber rewrote what humans are capable of and made it seem totally logical and normal.
It’s easy enough to read it: On June 3rd, 2017, Alex Honnold rewrote what is humanly possible by climbing the nearly 3,000 foot tall face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.
It’s harder to understand how or why, but let’s try.
Start with the feat, and the feat alone: Alex Honnold, a 31-year-old universally acclaimed climbing genius, scaled El Capitan without a rope, aid, or any help whatsoever. That is yes, almost 3,000 feet of climbing and focus applied to the almost sheer, vertical surface most consider to be the heart of the rock climbing universe, done without so much as a BASE jumping chute for a sliver of the illusion of safety.
In 1958, the first three climbers to make it all the way up El Capitan did it only after 18 months of planning and 47 days of actual climbing. They used ropes and drove pitons into the rock itself to secure their progress, and established a series of base camps along the way on a long siege of the climb. Even skilled climbers working today typically take four days to summit the most commonly climbed route, the standard called The Nose.
The route Honnold chose, Freerider, requires a similar commitment of time and resources. There are climbers sleeping on the rock as we write this, very fit, very experienced climbers who will need the better part of a week to knock off. They will sleep there, haul gear from station to station, and even defecate into PVC pipes and carry it with them for disposal later in order to finish the climb. I know this because Alex Honnold said in an interview just after the climb that he woke a few of them up on his way up the rock, passing them without a rope as they slept in Bivy platforms attached to the wall.
That route — my god, I almost don’t want to tell you what’s involved because it makes my hands start sweating just thinking about it. The rock is nearly vertical or past vertical. It heats up in the sun and messes with grip, and starts out cold enough to tear off callouses, leaving a climber’s hands bloody and useless. There are cracks small enough to get hands and feet stuck in, requiring expensive and embarrassing rescue; there are “off-width” cracks, big enough to require delicate use of the entire body as a kind of safety plug, a sometimes nightmarish move for a climber even with protection.
The entirety of Freerider grades out at a 5.12d on a scale that only goes up to 5.15. The crux of the route — i.e. the hardest part — is something called “The Teflon Corner”, a move working across holds no bigger than 1/8th of an inch requiring “a karate kick.” When Honnold was sizing up possible free solo routes on El Cap in 2009, even he doubted tackling Freerider because of the crux: "I've never even looked at the Teflon Corner, but it doesn't sound like something you'd want to solo.”
Eight years later, Alex Honnold blew through the Teflon Corner with ease. He finished a route most people do in four days in three hours and 56 minutes. He was wearing only a red shirt, cutoff nylon climbing pants, and a pair of climbing shoes when he did it, and carried only a bag of chalk. He was done by 9:28 a.m. Pacific Time.
There is also the matter of how he did this: Free soloing, i.e. climbing without a rope or any aid of any sort. There is no bigger level of commitment to your own skill as an athlete than free soloing a climb. There is no backup past your ability, no preservation from chance or the random disaster, no option B to select on the menu. If a free soloist makes a mistake on an ascent past a certain height, then that free soloist dies, often in violent and spectacular fashion.
Pedantry about free soloing being a glorified suicide helps me make this point: For Alex Honnold, the most unreal aspect of his ascent of Freerider is that it might not even be within the range of unreal for him.
Honnold didn’t use siege tactics and pitons to climb El Cap, but his preparation was no less rigorous. Honnold studied and worked the route — often alongside pioneering free soloist Peter Croft — for years. He free soloed other faces to get a feel for long climbs without protection done at scales that would melt other climber’s brain. For comparison, take a look at Moonlight Buttress, and feel the fear tingling in your knees and neck just looking at it, and then consider how Alex Honnold did this free solo almost nine years ago, when he was just getting started two years after dropping out of UC-Berkeley to live in his van and climb.
Consider how Honnold’s brain processes fear differently than the average human brain, and how his ability to stay calm and focused despite dangling by his fingertips a thousand feet off the ground comes from his amygdala barely firing under circumstances that would set most other people’s emotional centers on fire. Read about his fingerboard workouts, which he does in an L-sit position to keep his feet off the ground because he has to do them hanging from the frame of his home. Consider that his home is a van he lives in so he can devote his entire life to climbing, and that he rolled out of that same van to climb up the full height and length of Freerider, and that he spent the night before what will likely be the greatest achievement of his or any other rock climber’s career in that van, watching “the last Hobbit movie” and “vegging.”
Also think about there being nothing past this, at least not on earth. There are larger sheer rock faces on the planet, but almost all of them involve some degree of alpine-style climbing just to get there, and are located in places where the climate and geography are almost as much of an obstacle as the wall itself. Free soloing Trango Towers or Mount Thor would be legitimate suicide attempts made into the teeth of freezing weather and unstable rock conditions. Honnold’s risk in the end was no less absolute, but was also wagered at the very edge of the limit of the possible. What might lie beyond Yosemite is a degree of madness — even for the visibly mad free soloing community, where competitors race only themselves, each other’s records, and ultimately Death.
Finally: Consider how sensible all this madness looks, now that it’s all laid out there. Honnold, who was training to be an engineer before dropping out of university, chose the least unreal and controllable venue for the insanity of the world’s biggest free solo attempt. He prepared for it ruthlessly, devoted his whole life to it, and tracked the entire route until some of the holds felt like “old friends.” Honnold did that for the better part of eight years, then waxed it like it was a practice lap at the peak physical performance age of 31, and with a mental edge so pronounced it became the focus of official scientific inquiry.
Think about that on the day before the climb, Honnold bouldered just to stay loose, and that on the day of, after he finished, he was planning to work out because he’d only had “four hours of light exercise,” but definitely needed lunch first. The most shocking thing about Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Cap isn’t just that it rewrote what humans are capable of, but that the human who accomplished it made it seem so logical and normal in the first place.
The feat is extraordinary without the athlete; the athlete regards it as logical and normal; by extension, the athlete is simply doing what they are there to do, and anyone watching now realizes that they are in the company of a legitimate mutant, someone whose achievements are only made normal by comparison with the extranormal person producing them. I’m out of ways to say this: Alex Honnold is human, and so are you, and that the definition includes both is proof that words are shoddy signifiers for the reality they are supposed to represent, because Alex Honnold climbed Freerider without a rope and it didn’t even seem like an unsafe, unwise thing for him to do.
If all that isn’t enough: Consider that about halfway up, Honnold was planning his next climb, a sport climb at the absurd grade of 9A. That wasn’t being presumptuous: In his mind, the climb was finished the minute he left the ground. The rest — all of the nearly 3,000 feet of it — was just light exercise.
The Bill Parcells quote is: “You are what your record says you are.” Bob Stoops retired yesterday after achieving real, genuine football greatness at Oklahoma. His record in 17 seasons was 190-48, with a national title and 10 Big 12 titles to his name. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest football coaches of his generation.
Also, while he was at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops botched multiple cases involving violence against women involving players at the University of Oklahoma, and set an awful example by doing so for the university and the sport as a whole.
In spring of 2014, Stoops recruited transfer Dorial Green-Beckham, a wide receiver dismissed from Missouri a week after allegedly pushing a woman down stairs in a domestic violence and burglary incident. Police ultimately closed the case, “citing reluctant witnesses fearing retaliation.” Green-Beckhan went on to lose his appeal for an immediate year of eligibility, and opted to enter the 2015 NFL draft instead. Still, the offer alone was enough to draw fire, most notably from a standing United States Senator.
Stoops also welcomed back linebacker Frank Shannon in 2015, despite Shannon having been found to have committed sexual misconduct in January 2014 by Oklahoma’s own Title IX investigation. Shannon was suspended from team activities in April of 2014 after news of the investigation broke. No criminal charges were ever pressed against Shannon. However, in August of 2014, after Oklahoma’s Title IX investigation recommended expulsion for Shannon, the school’s administration settled on a year's suspension after hearing Shannon’s appeal in the case. On Shannon’s return, Stoops let him back on the team to play in 12 games in 2015.
These two incidents could be considered coincidental. However, they escalate up to the biggest failure for Stoops at OU: The case of Joe Mixon. Stoops played a huge role in ensuring that Mixon, who was arrested after punching a woman in the face in July of 2014, remained on the team after a year’s suspension. Stoops made this decision despite there being no doubt Mixon was guilty thanks to a brutal video of the incident that he, university president David Boren, and athletic director Joe Castiglione watched on Aug. 18, 2014. (After a long legal struggle, the video was finally made public in December of 2016.) Mixon eventually plead out in the case, and returned after suspension to play with the team in 2015 and 2016.
In summary: Stoops handled a player accused of domestic violence, a player the school found responsible for sexual misconduct, and a player who punched a woman on tape the same way — they were all allowed to remain or invited onto the roster at Oklahoma. In Green-Beckham’s case, Oklahoma supported a failed appeal to make him eligible to play immediately on transfer. In both the Shannon and Mixon cases, a year’s suspension was deemed sufficient punishment.
In all three cases, Stoops engaged in a pattern of behavior—one that could have suggested to a neutral observer that no incident involving violence against women would result in permanent removal from the team.
A young, inexperienced coach did not make these decisions. By the time Mixon punched Amelia Monitor in 2014, Stoops had been the head coach at Oklahoma for over 15 years. He was not feeling out a discipline process, or making a rookie mistake, or unfamiliar with the processes surrounding player arrests. He knew how it all worked.
In all three cases, Stoops chose the player. Even after the Mixon incident, Stoops and Oklahoma still offered JUCO wide receiver Dede Westbrook a scholarship in November of 2014. In December 2016, Westbrook was found by the Tulsa World to have two misdemeanor arrests for domestic violence predating his arrival in Norman. When asked about the arrests, Stoops said he was not aware of them even after a standard background check was run on Westbrook during the recruiting process.
There will be many glowing, heartwarming capstones placed on Stoops’ career. They are not totally inaccurate: Bob Stoops walked with his players during anti-racism protests in 2015, and he did and still does charity work in his community above and beyond what most football coaches would consider necessary. His assistants always praised his insistence on his coaches having a family life, something many coaches struggle to even conceptualize, much less work into the schedule as a priority.
Stoops is also known for being a good quote when he wants to be. Much of the time, he can be brutally honest with reporters and his players. Not cruel, or unfair, or even brusque, but honest.
Anyone properly summing up his career should return the favor. When writing the full account of his long tenure as the head coach at Oklahoma, note that Stoops failed. Like Tom Osborne at Nebraska before him, Stoops failed badly when confronted with violence against women.
That should always be part of his story. Writing it through in the name of tribute would not just be dishonesty, but a disservice to the victims of those incidents, and to everyone working to change cultures and institutions within college athletics that often make heinously negligent allowances for athletes committing violence against women. Stoops was a failure as a leader at OU when it came to the issue of violence against women. His record is what it says it is, and even Stoops has sort of admitted to regretting that.
It’s also necessary to remind people of it because it will try to disappear — something people in the media and college athletics will be more than happy to help along. The memory hole for coaches’ failures off the field is real, especially for someone as successful and generally beloved in his community as Bob Stoops. It’s not just that people will forget; they will sometimes not even attempt to write things as they actually happened in the first place.
For example: There are two words that do not appear anywhere in Bob Stoops’ 2,100 word Wikipedia entry, or in his nearly 3,500 word bio on the Oklahoma Sooners website, or in any of the statements from coaches, friends, and other colleagues that rolled out in the wake of his retirement yesterday. Those two words are “Joe” and “Mixon.”