Man Getting Hit By Football: Week 14

Moving on from Thanksgiving Football to the best book about football and violence for your Christmas Wish List!
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Illustration by Brad Beatson

Houston (-3) at Jacksonville

Monsters, a new book by Rich Cohen, is mostly the story of the 1985 Chicago Bears. It’s an extremely well-written, exhaustively reported and researched work, but it’s at a disadvantage because the 1985 Bears were the best team of all time and everyone already knows quite a bit about them—Mike Ditka the fiery coach, Mike McMahon the punkish cool-kid quarterback, Sweetness, the Fridge, the swarming 46 defense, the Super Bowl Shuffle. Cohen delves into these things and the long history of football in Chicago and the relationship the city had to the team and the team had to the fans. It’s a good story, if slightly Father’s-Day-gift-ish at times, and Cohen tells it extremely well. Buy it for the Bears fan in your life for this obligated-to-buy-things-for-people season, cross them off your list, head over to the local bookstore this Thursday night and take care of it. Rest assured, you will miss no football.

PICK: Houston

Kansas City (-3.5) at Washington

But Monsters is also, in some places, the story of trying to reconcile the violence of football with our love for it (meaning, mostly, the football part), which is something anyone who writes about the game has to address. When Cohen gets into the story of the early days of the NFL, the years when it was played by the sons of steel workers and miners who grew up in places where work meant inflicting damage on your body, he unavoidably glorifies the manly hitting and brutality. Cohen is writing from a fan’s point of view, after all, and we like the bloodsporty stuff. Or, as he elegantly puts it:

“For some, pro football’s appeal is the aerial assault, the ballet of receivers getting both feet inbounds, but for others it’s the Stone Age pleasure of watching large men battle to the point of exhaustion. There are moments when the game is able to capture what it’s like to be alive in a world filled with friends and enemies, and some help you, and some hurt you, and there is a place for teamwork and intelligence, but the winner is usually the person who can stand the most and take in the longest and get back his feet just once more than he’s been knocked down.”

PICK: Kansas City

Minnesota (+7) at Baltimore

The version of football described in that quote sounds powerful and compelling, but it also sounds grimly gladiatorial. It’s true that there’s a spark of something fundamental and dark about a game where the players have to overcome each other physically and prove their strength and determination in front of thousands of screaming fans. The problem is, whatever primal truthy thing is contained in that contest is lost when the men are proving their strength in a game like Vikings-Ravens, which means very little to anyone who doesn’t own Adrian Peterson in fantasy and which will be watched primarily by a bunch of day-drunken sportsbar bros who are mostly paying attention to their phones.

PICK: Baltimore

Cleveland (+12) at New England

Near the end of his book, Cohen offers some ruminations about how the NFL has changed since 1919, when the Bears (then named the Decatur Staleys) were founded. The players have gotten larger and faster and more dangerous. “It’s as if football has outgrown its skin, as if the stars have become too powerful for their own good,” he writes. The fans are different too, no longer factory workers and other tough men doing tough jobs. “The hardship of the game [as it was watched by fans in the early years] was more than just a spectacle. It echoed the physical and mental challenges [fans] faced every day. Seeing your own struggle at a remove is a kind of transcendence.”

PICK: Cleveland

Oakland (+3) at “New York” Jets

The NFL today, though, is just one entertainment in a world full of them. The athletes are millionaires who in many cases have been getting molded into their roles for their entire lives. They’re video game characters, stat-generating machines we literally pretend to own. The glitzy football of today has nothing to do with the football that’s described and venerated by the old-timers.

PICK: Oakland

Indianapolis (+6) at Cincinnati

And thank God for that. I mean, here’s Kurt Becker, a guard on the 1985 Bears, talking to Cohen:

“I don’t like the ball being thrown all over the place… I like the struggle, the drama of ball control. I want our offense to stay on the field. I like scoring slowly. I like eating up time on a long drive. To me, that’s football: you’re tired, you grind ‘em, you recover, you prevail.”

I don’t know how it feels to play that kind of football, but it sounds boring as shit to watch. “The drama of ball control,” seen from the bird’s-eye view the camera affords us, resembles a bunch of men falling into each other. Gain of three. Hell yes, this is a play I’ll be telling my kids about.

PICK: Indianapolis

Detroit (+3) at Philadelphia

Another old-timer who talked to Cohen referred to today’s game, with all the passing and the rules designed to protect quarterbacks and receivers as “basketball on grass.” He meant it as an insult, I guess, but basketball on grass sounds like a fun and entertaining game where people are not, as a rule, suffering brain damage routinely.

PICK: Philadelphia

Miami (+3) at Pittsburgh

If you want an example of the awfulness the “struggle” of football occasionally produces, just watch the horrible thing that happened to Le’Veon Bell last week—actually, don’t watch it, just read Sean Conboy on it in Pittsburgh Magazine.

PICK: Pittsburgh

Buffalo (+2.5) at Tampa Bay

In recognition of the fact that this has mostly not been a very “fun” column thus far, here’s a .GIF of Mike Glennon throwing the football backwards:

PICK: Tampa Bay

Atlanta (NO LINE) at Green Bay

There’s no line here yet because Aaron Rodgers’s status is up in the air. Without him, the Packers are a Houstonian mess; with him they’re a dark-horse Super Bowl contender. And actually, even after the team’s five-game non-winning streak they’re still alive thanks to the sloppy state of the NFC North. If Rodgers returns and leads his team to four straight wins against a weak schedule to get them into the playoffs it’ll be a sports story on par with the end of Breaking Away. (In that analogy, the Lions are the jerky college kids, I guess, and… Matt Flynn is Dennis Quaid?)

PICK: Green Bay (whatever the line turns out to be)

Tennessee (+12) at Denver

Rodgers’s injury just underscores, again, that football is a passing game now. I mean, duh, but it’s worth looking, again, at how much more accurate quarterbacks are, how much faster and more skilled tight ends and receivers are—even without those you-can’t-brush-Tom-Brady’s-helmet-with-your-hands-even-by-accident rules, football is headed to a place where the grinding drama of the ground game is secondary. If you could gain an average of seven yards per passing play and only get picked off one out of every 50 throws, why run at all?

PICK: Tennessee

St. Louis (+6.5) at Arizona

The argument that the anti-reform football dudes put up is generally that the hard tackling and the violence is the soul of the game—take away that in the name of safety and you’ve turned football into something unrecognizable. (These people exist, and unsurprisingly they’re Fox News contributors.) But the NFL’s already lost it’s original soul a few times over. It’s not a game played by factory workers for the entertainment of other factory workers; its violence no longer reflects the violence of the everyday life of its audience. If the rules are changed to reduce the likelihood of players lying crippled on the field after a big hit, is the viewing experience really going to be ruined?

PICK: Arizona

“New York” Giants (+3) at San Diego

Not to say that you can’t quibble about how you get to the place of New Football, where there are fewer concussions and it doesn’t feel like you’re watching something horrible happening. For instance, maybe we could worry a little less about protecting quarterbacks and a little more about preventing those awful three-guys-arrive-at-exactly-the-same-place-at-the-same-time-oh-no-one-of-them-isn’t-getting-up moments that happen on some passes thrown to the middle of the field. The important thing is to recognize that when even Brett Favre wouldn’t let his son play the game, Old Football is dead.

PICK: San Diego

Seattle (+3) at San Francisco

The good news is no matter how much the rules get altered, football is still going to be football. It’s still going to have moments like this:

PICK: Seattle

Carolina (+3.5) at New Orleans

Part of that project to reform football is going to involve not glorifying the violence of the game in the past, which is the tricky bit—acknowledging that the former heroes of the game were great, and great in part because of their ability to dish out and take punishment, but also that the injuries they endured for the sake of entertaining people was pretty fucked up and we shouldn’t require today’s players to endure those same things. Maybe we’ve gotten softer as a society, maybe we’re too scared of pain and blood, but it’s undeniable that our tastes have changed. Old football may have been great for its day, but now it should be regarded as a game that seems sort of gross to televise, along with bear-baiting, old school UFC fights, and that sport they play in Afghanistan with the headless goats.

PICK: New Orleans

Chicago (PK) at Dallas

Since Cohen says a lot about the need to change football far better than I can, I’ll close with one more quote from Monsters, which, if it’s not clear by now, you should buy even if you already know all about the 1985 Bears:

“Those who love [football] know it has to change, as it has changed in the past. It was a scrum that took to the air. It was checkers that turned into chess. Here’s what I tell my friends: don’t fear, as every reform has eventually resulted in a better game.”

PICK: Dallas

Previous week’s record: 5-11

Overall record: 93-93-6

All lines taken from FootballLocks.com


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