During the buildup to last weekend's divisional playoff games in the AFC, a careful observer might have noticed something. There was this intangible feeling swirling around those games. Something that's become increasingly rare in football these days. FUN.
Players wearing ridiculous t-shirts, coaches taking shots at each other... Even someone as vanilla as Wes Welker got a little creative. It was great entertainment. We can break down games all day long, but when the players themselves start to crank up the rhetoric, the whole thing becomes larger than life, and more irresistible than ever. It's no coincidence that Sunday's Patriots-Jets game was the highest rated playoff game in almost 15 years.
Naturally, Roger Goodell had to go and throw a wet blanket on everything. It's the latest example of Goodell's fundamental issues as NFL commissioner, and on the verge of an NFL lockout, it's a microcosm of a disconnect with players that's only going to get worse.
As Goodell told NFL owners at meetings in Atlanta this week, he worries about trash talk crossing the line (via Fox Sports):
I think there's got to be a respect amongst the people who play and coach and, most importantly, for the game of football. I want to make sure that's respected throughout the league. I understand the approach of different teams. ... But there also is a line you don't want to cross. We need to make sure we define that and don't cross it. That's what I think we want to work on in the offseason.
And... Come on. Seriously. Does this guy have to ruin EVERYTHING? We just enjoyed one of the better rivalry weeks pro football has seen in years. Didn't Roger read that awesome trash talk essay at Deadspin? As former NFL player Nate Jackson explained on Tuesday, all the talking from the Jets was actually brilliant strategy:
...herein lies Rex Ryan's genius. By controlling the media narrative — "This is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan," he said, just about writing the headline for everyone — and by letting Cromartie attack the Golden Boy, he could also control national expectations for the outcome. No way can Rex Ryan beat Bill Belichick. No way can Cromartie beat Brady.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors, Ryan was building up his players for an ass-whooping.
See, not only does trash talk make football more fun, but look closer at the back-and-forth between players and coaches, and it makes things more interesting. Last week was never about Rex Ryan vs. Bill Belichick. By framing the battle a certain way, it made the Jets look ridiculous, immature, and desperate. Rex wanted it that way.
For the reasons Jackson mentions, and that I outlined in my preview last Friday:
It's easier than ever to dismiss New York as some surreal sideshow, but don't forget: before the 45-3 drubbing in Week 13, these two teams were considered co-favorites in the AFC. ... The Jets can't be that much worse than the Patriots, can they? They may still lose on Sunday, but the talent and the coaching in New York is too good to get humiliated the way they did a month ago, and if anything, there's a better chance New England underestimates them.
Who knows whether New England underestimated them, but we do know Welker broke team rules to fire back at New York, got benched, and while America prepared to watch the Jets eat their foolish words, Rex could use the whole spectacle to motivate his team.
So, to recap: Trash talk makes things more fun for casual fans, it helps the media generate interest in the sport, and in some cases, it can be fascinating subplot to the strategy that underpins games like the Jets and Patriots. ... Can someone explain why we need guidelines here?
Oh, of course. Because the NFL can't control it. That's gotta be it, right? The NFL can't trust players to promote games themselves, because they may not stand up to the NFL's standard of decorum. As Goodell said, "There also is a line you don't want to cross. We need to make sure we define that."
Although in the NFL, "we" usually means "Roger Goodell." It's a much bigger problem, but Goodell trying to legislate trash talk is the perfect microcosm. So with that in mind, in honor of Wes Welker, let's put our best foot forward and walk all over this idea before it gets legs.
This stuff is none of Goodell's business. If players want to act like cartoon characters when they attend league-mandated media sessions, it's not the NFL's job to tell them to tone it down. Let the coaches do that if they want.
Let owners do it.
Let teammates do it.
Let opponents do it.
But not Roger Goodell and the league office.
The thing with free speech is, you can say whatever you want, so long as you're prepared to deal with the consequences. Yell "FIRE" in a movie theater as often as you'd like, but if there's no fire, you'll end up in jail. And players can say whatever they want, and as fans we collectively nod and say, "We'll see on Sunday."
If a player talks, he has to back it up, or risk looking like an idiot. That Goodell can't see the beauty in that arrangement is part of why he's so frustrating as an NFL commissioner. No different than the NFL's stance against endzone dances--if a player scores, why can't he do whatever he wants in the endzone? If an opponent doesn't like it, they can stop him from scoring the next time.
See, when it comes to policing self-expression, the game is the ultimate arbitrator when it comes to punishing fools. Do and say whatever you want, but be prepared. NFL Sunday brings with it as pure a form of justice as you'll find anywhere in life.
When Roger Goodell and others talk about policing behavior that "crosses the line" and jeopardizes the integrity of the game, he fails to see that there's nothing more steeped in integrity than backing up trash talk, or exposing someone who dared to talk trash. If it crosses the line and gets personal, like some the Jets-Patriots talk, that just raises the stakes, and makes us all care more. It's a beautiful thing.
And the more you chip away at players' rights to express themselves on the field or off it, the more that dynamic loses its charm, and the more players and fans will lose respect for Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner that doesn't understand there's a difference between being a torch bearer for the game and the one who lights the flame.
It's what Roger has never understood, and on the verge of a lockout, the disconnect's about to become more transparent than ever. It's not Roger Goodell's job to guard the integrity of the NFL.
The players and coaches with inferiority complexes, foot fetishes, and volatile emotions that sometimes lead them to cross the line--the ones that give their lives to this sport--those are the guys that light the NFL's flame. It burned before Goodell, and it'll burn when he's gone. In the meantime, let's hope the NFL Commissioner can avoid throwing a wet blanket on everything that makes football fun in the first place.