Here's what I think should happen. At the end of this farcical exercise in corporate avarice, and whenever he has determined that his ego has been sufficiently fluffed and his power sufficiently recognized throughout the land, commissioner Roger Goodell should take his entire 2012 salary and split every dime of it up among the players in the National Football League, because they are the ones he's putting at risk and they are the only ones keeping the NFL from descending into a form of opéra bouffe that would embarrass roller derby. Sunday night, the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens played a preposterously good football game, which the Ravens won, 31-30, on a walk-off field goal by rookie Justin Tucker, in a preposterous context that ended with New England coach Bill Belichick trying to grab the arm of an official as the ref ran off the field.
"I'm not going to comment on that," Belichick said afterward. "You saw the game. What did we get, 30 penalties called in that game?"
(Actually, there were only 24. But that was a sufficient number to completely destroy the flow of the game, not to mention that there were enough really bad ones to get everybody in the stadium angry about something. However, let it be said that knuckling the referees has brought some innovation to the game. The Baltimore fans have developed a terrific syncopated variation on the traditional chant of "Bullshit." There are drums, and just a hint of second-line, to it. And this is only the third game of the season. Two more weeks of this nonsense and they may add a string section and a choir.)
The players are the only redeeming thing about the sport right now. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had a remarkable night Sunday, carving up a good defense for 335 yards, and then that defense reasserted itself, shutting New England down to just a field goal in the fourth quarter as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco engineered two marvelous drives to bring Baltimore back from nine points down. Salted throughout all this action, of course, were bizarre holding calls, odd interference calls, some purely psychedelic calls, and a game-winning field goal that was so close that, all his frustrations coming to a boil, New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork looked very much like he might eat one of the referees who were standing under the goal posts.
"They have to review that," Wilfork said. "They have to. In a game like this, you have to. But they ran off the field, so it is what it is."
Alas for Wilfork's case, but probably to the great relief of the uneaten officiating crew, the final field goal was not a reviewable play.
Or take, for only one example, Baltimore wideout Torrey Smith, who, on Sunday night, caught six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns, including a five-yarder from Flacco with four minutes to go that got the Ravens close enough for Tucker to win it at the end. The night before the game, Smith was awakened and told that his brother, Tevin Jones, had been killed in a motorcycle crash. Early Sunday afternoon, Smith told Ravens coach John Harbaugh that he wanted to play. "I guess, if you're around athletics, you feel like it's an escape," Harbaugh said. "When Torrey said he wanted to play, then the decision was finished. He was going to get the opportunity to play. He deserved that."
"It's hard, man, every time I even think about Torrey, I just drop my head," Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "Just seeing him be able to run around out there and just play football after some stuff like that happened. He's a very strong guy, strong-willed guy to be out there making plays and putting his heart on the field after you lost your brother last night."
Smith was central to Baltimore's effort from the start. The Patriots jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. But Smith caught the first of his touchdown passes in the second, when Flacco found him in the left corner of the end zone, to cut the score to 13-7 and drain all of New England's momentum. He played so well on such a strange and awful day.
"It was weird," Smith said, "having so many people who were showing their support from afar, from guys on the Steelers that I don't even know. I saw something that LaMarr Woodley did, and I appreciate that a lot. The fact that we're on rival teams, you know, and football is a war every time we get together, that he would go out of his way and even say a prayer for me and my family. That meant a lot for my family.
"I didn't want to be out there, just running around, doing nothing. If I was going to be out there, I was going to give it my all and, when you're on the lines, you just want to make the play. Afterwards is when you can sit back and reflect on things. My teammates, I just love them to death, and they helped me get through this." Torrey Smith couldn't have given more of himself to the game, to his team, and to the people who bought a ticket. He deserved so much better than what was going on around him.
This was my first live exposure to Goodell's ongoing experiment in national consumer fraud, but it doesn't take very long to get used to the offbeat polyrhythms the experiment has forced upon the game. First, you have the play. Then you have the dramatic appeal to the scab officials. Then you have the overreaction to the dramatic appeal to the scab officials, which usually involves either head-butts or slap fights. We had one of both in the first quarter Sunday night. Brady scrambled and slid. Haloti Ngata landed on him. Brady got up and begged for a call, which nobody made until Ngata went melon-to-melon with Logan Mankins. Later, Julian Edelman and Cary Williams livened up the end of a perfectly ordinary play by reenacting the airport brawl from The Turning Point between Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.
If, as is the case with almost everyone my age, you got used to the basic flow of a football game by watching it on TV every Sunday, the effect of what's going on out there this year is jarring. There is an almost palpable sense of ambivalence and uncertainty. Plays no longer end when they should. The fans in the stadiums — and the fans watching at home and, god knows, the gambling community in both places — have an obvious moment in which everybody wonders if something completely screwy is going to happen. The ongoing long con occasioned by locking out real officials has accomplished one thing — it's buried forever any notion that an NFL game is predictable. Early in the second quarter, while going out of bounds, Baltimore's Anquan Boldin reached out with the ball, trying to get it past the first-down marker before he went to the ground. The referees ruled the play short of the stick. Then, they decided to measure. By now, both Belichick and Harbaugh were performing enthusiastic pantomime on the sidelines. The measurement also showed the Ravens as a yard or two short, whereupon Harbaugh challenged the spot. Under the curtain went referee Bruce Hermansen, while Belichick explained things in great bovine detail to one of the other officials. Finally, after an interminable delay, the call was reversed. The Ravens got their first down, and we all at last got to compliment Anquan Boldin for the heady play he'd made. I'm not willing to make nice with these guys because a scab's a scab, and because, occasionally, it looks as though Goodell found these guys because they all had the correct lucky number on page 42 of tonight's program.
Which is something more than a shame, because New England–Baltimore has blossomed into a genuine rivalry. It has that mixture of bad blood and fundamental respect that's marked the great NFL rivalries down through the years. Last season, the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl when the Ravens missed a chip shot field goal in the AFC Championship game. Two years ago, Baltimore blew New England out of the playoffs in about 11 minutes. Belichick has a long-standing, and quite mutual, man crush on Ravens safety Ed Reed. "Just watching A Football Life With Bill Belichick, you can't do anything but have much respect for Coach Belichick and the way he runs things," Reed said earlier. "His background and the discipline and focus that he asks of guys and what he allows you to do as a football player, he honestly understands your athletic ability. He allows football players to be football players."
All week, the players went out of their way to explain (a) why these two teams enjoy knocking each other into next Thursday, and (b) how much they respect each other for being able to do that. "Ray (Lewis) is a big-time playmaker. Ed Reed is. Haloti. Lardarius Webb has turned into one of the best corners in the league," Brady said Wednesday during his weekly press conference. "They've got a lot of players who can really wreak havoc."
And they all deserve better than they're getting.
"Hey, youngblood, be careful, or you're gonna get fined."
Ed Reed was shouting over a scrum of reporters in the general direction of Lardarius Webb, who was attempting to be diplomatic, and wasn't exactly being Talleyrand about the whole business. "So," Webb explained, acknowledging Reed with a wave, "if you see me ripping off my hat out there, it's because it doesn't fit, OK? It's not because I'm angry at the referees. Make sure you write that down. 'Not mad at the referees.'"
"I let 'em do their job and I focus on what I have to do," Webb later said. "It's hard to focus on what you have to do when you've also got to worry about how they're doing their jobs. We have to worry about what is holding and what isn't."
Ray Lewis, who's been around long enough not to care, was a little more direct. "That's another subject and I really don't want to go there and damage the win, but you can't do that to the game," he said. "You have to let the game take care of itself. The saddest thing about it is when you hear other people talk about it and say, those are the rules. Those aren't the rules. The rules of this game are — do whatever you have to do, by whatever means necessary.
(Not for nothing, but this is not a turn of phrase that Ray Lewis ought to be using, given events earlier in his life. We continue, however.)
"That's the beautiful thing about this game. It takes away the pureness of the game. We have to find a way to address it. You can't let guys keep going through that. This is our livelihood. People make careers out of this right here. Some of the things they say to you, as men, you can't speak to a man like that, just because you have on a black-and-white uniform. Be a man about your call and, if there's any indecision, don't make a call like that to affect the game. Something needs to change."
He may be fined for saying that. Lardarius Webb may be fined for his little tap dance along the edge. Bill Belichick will almost certainly be fined for his little contretemps with the official after the game. The players are outraged. The coaches are outraged. The fans are outraged. Even the pet TV commentators seem marginally perturbed. Roger Goodell is about an inch away from having general mutiny on his hands. If Lewis, or Webb, or Belichick is fined for stating the honest truth, or for reacting as any sane person would when a travesty is made of his life's work, then it's time for players to decide not to play for a while. It's their lives. It's their bodies, and people with the heart of Torrey Smith deserve better than to be made complicit in dishonest vaudeville.