Week 3 NFL Wrap-up: Attack of the Replacement Refs
Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ‘98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.
NATHAN: Just to let everyone know, Sam is on the PUP list this week. Apparently, his job allows him spend most Sundays chugging Iron City Light and getting mad at the replacement refs, just not all. Since he couldn’t be here, I brought in John Ambrose, a Boston native, Patriots fan, and former professional boxer, to offer an insider’s perspective as to why the Pats are awesome, why everyone hates the Pats, why everyone is blatantly wrong, why everyone might actually be right, and why the Sunday night game between the Patriots and Ravens was utter horseshit. Before we get started, I just want to note that we’re going to do this sort of guest fan thing every so often throughout the season. Okay, now that that’s noted, let’s get started! John, first things first: does you Patriots fandom predate 2001? No lying.
JOHN: I’ve been a Pats fan since birth. My earliest sports memory is the ’85 Super Bowl. I was four years old and asked my dad, with the score 46-10, whether or not we would be able to win. Needless to say, he was not optimistic.
NATHAN: Which kind of Pats fan do you consider yourself? A stuffy Beacon Hill sweater-vester? A raging Southie lunatic?
JOHN: It’s been about six years since I left Boston, so it’s hard being an expatriate fan (ha ha). And if you’re not from Boston, I think it’s hard to get a sense of how the Patriots have traditionally fit into the local sportscape. They’re the one team that doesn’t actually play in the city, so with only eight home games a year, being a Pats fan is time, money, and travel. We’re a cold-weather city, so Pats games aren’t populated by “pink hats” screaming at ball players from behind their Bud Lights and Red Sox tank tops. There’s still a certain ethos to Pats fans that I remember idolizing as a child—the hardy, slightly deranged, stoic New England thing.
NATHAN: You’re doing everything you can to command respect as a Pats fan. Are you saying you that this ethos is the one thing that makes Pats fans better than all other fans? If not, what is?
JOHN: We’re loyal and knowledgeable without the track record of, say, Steelers fans, and we don’t have that intergenerational folklore of other teams. We’re not as rabid as Raiders or Browns or Cowboys fans. I think, though, that Pats fans have managed to stay more grounded than even fans of other Boston teams. The Red Sox were World Series heroes, for instance, and we chased them out of town like they’d screwed our wives. But Pats fans still have an abiding appreciation for Brian Cox, Drew Bledsoe, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison. Rodney could’ve won us the first Super Bowl against the Giants, but nobody begrudges him. Even now with Brady and Belichick slipping, nobody shouts for their heads.
NATHAN: Not only are you “loyal and knowledgeable,” but you either rowed at Harvard, played squash at BU, were on the gymnastics teams at BC, or developed advanced sporting metrics at MIT. These characterizations make you better than every other fan base but also more despicable.
[pullquote_right]Boston fans, even Pats fans, are spoiled rotten but still want to play the poor card.[/pullquote_right]
JOHN: As Bostonians, so much of our sports identity was wrapped up in the idea that we were losers, but losers the right way—the way preferable to New York teams. Now that the city has turned into a dominant sports town, it’s like we don’t know how to act—we swagger, but it feels empty, so we try to be both villain and sympathizer. Ultimately, this robs us of having a true identity. Yankees fans are assholes, but they embrace it and play off it. Boston fans, even Pats fans, are spoiled rotten but still want to play the poor card.
NATHAN: I wouldn’t disagree. You mentioned Bledsoe. Number one overall draft pick in 1993 . . . Super Bowl in 1996 season . . . 10-year, $103-million (then record) contract in 2001 . . . the Mo Lewis hit . . . Tom Brady. Can you explain the Boston fan’s relationship to him?
JOHN: Everyone in New England likes Bledsoe. He made the team relevant. He took us to a Super Bowl, which Parcells takes the blame for losing, not him. (And damn that Desmond Howard.) Bledsoe was a nice guy, marginally charismatic. He handled the transition to Brady with class, came back in the ‘01 playoffs with Brady injured to win against the Steelers, then went right back to the bench. He’s like the girl you date for three years before you find the true love of your life and get married and start referring to your ex as “pretty” and “sweet.” But without Bledsoe, I don’t think Belichick comes to the Patriots. He was gusty, too, once beating the Bills with a broken finger. In the end, we remember him for his flaws (statuesque in the pocket, couldn’t execute the play fake) as much as for the fact that he carried the franchise for a decade.
NATHAN: How very sly of you to bring up, to a Steelers fan, Bledsoe’s role in the ’01 playoffs: bench, bench, beat Steelers, bench, watch Brady win Super Bowl. But that was when the Steelers started Kordell Stewart at QB. Kordell was one of those players who, despite his incredible physical gifts, could not improve his play when he most needed to; he’s the primary reason the Steelers squandered their fantastic defenses of the mid-late ’90s, if anyone cares (I’m assuming no one does).
Let’s get to this year’s Pats team. Obviously you watched on Sunday night. Let me ask you this question as if we were on ESPN: John, did you see anything in these first three games that tells who the Patriots really are?
JOHN: This year’s team reminds me of one of those goofy old vaudevillian routines where characters 1 and 2 keep missing each other behind opening and shutting doors, entering and exiting rooms, that whole shtick. Our defense is much improved from last year: Vince Wilfork is dominant as ever, our linebackers are coming together nicely with Mayo and Spikes, and our draft picks are panning out better than expected. Our wide receivers, with the addition of Brandon Lloyd, combined with our tight ends, give Brady his best arsenal since 2007. However, the rest of the team has filled out just as Brady has started his decline.
[pullquote_left]Need a 90-yard touchdown drive after the two-minute warning? Leave it to Tom Golden.[/pullquote_left]
NATHAN: Brady once said he wants to play until he’s 40. Give me one good reason why he’s on the downswing. Can’t he just stand in the pocket and be accurate for the next twenty years?
JOHN: As a Pats fan, you never felt out of a game. Need two scores with five minutes left? Brady would make it happen. Need a 90-yard touchdown drive after the two-minute warning? Leave it to Tom Golden.
Then we blew the 2006 AFC Championship Game against the Colts. In the 2007 Super Bowl, Brady’s definitive pass was one that was just out of reach of Moss’s extended fingertips. Last year, the pass to Welker that could’ve sealed the Super Bowl was high and outside. (No matter what Gisele might say, that pass was all on Brady.) Now, this year, Brady’s accuracy on deep balls is atrocious, and he looks tentative in the pocket. I have to believe that, against the Cardinals, the reason we took a knee instead of going for a TD or at least a closer field goal has something to do with the fact that Belichick, too, sees the decline.
NATHAN: But it still seems so easy for him to put up 335 yards games, like he did Sunday night.
JOHN: On Sunday night, Tom Brady reverted to his proficient, dimple-chinned self. Rumors of his demise, decline, and inability to leave Gisele’s succubus-like embrace (such as the ones started a few paragraphs above) appear exaggerated. Most heartening was his confidence in the pocket against a tough, aggressive, and criminally-oriented Baltimore defense. There was no maddening display of Brady happy feet as the O-line collapsed around him and his lovely hair. He even ran—albeit very, very, very, slowly, like Forrest Gump before his leg braces break slowly—for a few yards before being pancaked by Haloti Ngata.
NATHAN: All right, enough Brady love! He wears Uggs and sprays Stetson on his neck. We get it.
JOHN: Okay, but let me say something about his receivers. At one point, Welker doppelgänger Julian Edelman was punched repeatedly in the head by a Baltimore defensive back, while a nearby referee watched. As a former pro boxer, I can say that, had those punches to the back of Edelman’s head come in a ring, they would’ve lead to point deductions. But Sunday night, they amounted to little more than incredulity. I’m sure Edelman wishes he had retaliated, both because no flag was thrown and because he later lost his hand after it was eaten, masticated, and digested by a Baltimore defender.
NATHAN: I was hoping we could avoid discussing the replacement refs. Personally, I’ve been thinking that this “controversy” is symbolic of a post-postmodern culture so immune to/bored by/wary of real drama that it constantly needs to create pseudo drama to make itself feel like something important is happening at all times. If our created entertainments are truly dramatic, we treat them suspiciously; we’re more comfortable with the manufactured of drama of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, et al. After Sunday night, most national voices weighed in—Charles P. Pierce, for instance, wondered if Pats-Raven was a “breaking point”—but, as Steve Young pointed out last week, the NFL low-balling the refs is a business decision, and that’s that. And even though I was annoyed at having to slog through a herky-jerky three-and-a-half hour Steelers-Raiders game, the real reason it sucked was because my team revealed that it’s on track for an 8-8 season. Football teams and fantasy players are all we care about, and until those two entities don’t resemble what we expect them to resemble, we’ll watch the games and care.
And then Packers-Seahawks happened.
[pullquote_right]The refs are endangering players’ health, but let’s not pretend to care too much.[/pullquote_right]
JOHN: The refs are ruining the integrity of the game and fans’ ability to enjoy it. They’re also endangering players’ health . . . but we’re football fans, so let’s not pretend to care too much about that. Roger Goodell and the NFL cabal have decided to allow the degradation of the brand and the country’s favorite sport because, apparently, they can. The NFL is like some insanely gorgeous woman who has decided to not brush her hair or teeth, to forego showering or exerting any effort in bed, and to assume a repulsive personality, just because she can get away with it. Are there actually any women like that? I’m not sure, but I like the simile.
NATHAN: Works for me. You were a boxer; can you elucidate the psyche of the competitor embroiled in a scab ref situation like the current one?
JOHN: My one loss as a boxer came in the finals of the New England Golden Gloves. My trainer couldn’t work my corner, so I had a friend do it instead. In the final round, my “trainer” jumped up on the ring apron to shout at the referee, which is an automatic disqualification. For the rest of my career, whenever anyone asked me about that one loss, I’d try to magnanimously say that it was my fault, I should’ve knocked my opponent out, I shouldn’t have been in a position where I could lose the fight on such a fluke. Looking back now, though, that’s bullshit.
I realize the importance of maintaining a certain mindset, especially in athletics, of not looking to pawn off blame or responsibility for one’s own shortcomings. But why should one team or one athlete be placed at a disadvantage? When Manny Pacquiao “lost” to Timothy Bradley, a lot of commentators blamed Pacquiao for not knocking his opponent out, for not dominating a few rounds here and there. Why is that his fault? The sport is set up so that the fighter who wins the most rounds wins the fight. Why should Pacquiao go above and beyond the sport’s rules to overcome wretched judging? Why should the Patriots or any other team, especially the Packers after last night, have to complete every pass, convert every third down, chase down every interception, before they can credibly argue the refs cost them the game?
Anyway, fan misery loves company, and after this weekend there are a lot of proud teams whose fans are a little worried, a little shocked, and a little disgusted (hi, Pittsburgh!).
NATHAN: Thanks for reminding me! I never thought I’d say this in my lifetime, but the Steelers’ offense is far better than the defense. To honor this travesty, I’m implementing a rule that I won’t gripe about the Steelers until they have beaten the Ravens, AND beaten the Bengals, AND are within a game-and-a-half of the division lead/tie. If this means waiting until next season to bitch about our drafts under Tomlin, so be it.
Thanks, John, for filling in. It’s imperative to have you back sometime soon, not so you can heap lavish praise on Tom Brady’s stubbled jawline, but so you can explain A) what it’s like to be a professional boxer and B) why you never fought Oscar De La Hoya.