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The NFL Rises

10:45 AM, Jan 1, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That's real glory. That’s the essence of it.”—Vince Lombardi

Late Sunday night, the Washington Redskins defeated the Dallas Cowboys (that would be “America’s Team”) 28-18. The victory got them into the playoffs and made possible an appearance in the Super Bowl. The Redskins’ last Super Bowl appearance came a few days after President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.

Proving, perhaps, that miracles and resurrections do happen.

And it could be argued that it happened not only for the Redskins but also for professional football, with Sunday closing out a kind of epic comeback for the NFL.

The 2012 season began with a “bounty” scandal and a strike by the people known as the “Zebras.” Fans had never realized how deeply they regarded the “regular” officials (who are actually part-timers) until the “replacements” made calls that turned around entire games, if not seasons. The welcome that greeted the regular officials upon their return was as improbable as a nationwide IRS Appreciation Day.

The bounty scandal sidelined several New Orleans Saints players and resulted in the suspension of the team’s head coach for the entire season. No mortal could have been surprised to learn that football, especially at the highest level, is a violent game. Or that players employ this violence to intimidate opponents and, even, take them out of a game.  Some of the game’s heroes achieved their mythic status precisely for their violent skills.  Dick Butkus was famous for his bone crushing hits, not his acrobatic moves.  Deacon Jones would come off the line at the snap of the ball and smack the offensive lineman’s helmet hard enough to make his ears ring, making it just a little easier to get to the quarterback the next time.

But it did come as a distasteful shock that players might need an extra cash incentive (don’t they make enough, already?) to sideline an opponent with an injury.  The bounty scandal more or less merged with a generalized concern over injuries and the kind of hard hits that caused them.  Too many players were going down with concussions after hard, “helmet-to-helmet” hits.

So there were fines and suspensions. And gripes from some players about how the game was being robbed of its essence. This recalled Pittsburg Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert’s line from two or three decades ago regarding rules meant to protect quarterbacks from injury.  “Why don’t they just put a dress on them,” Lambert said.

The 2012 season, then, was a muddle and the essence of football under challenge. 

But that, as they say, is why they play the games. Football redeemed itself on the field as the season played out. By last Sunday, the NFL had recovered its glory.

Take the Redskins. A few weeks ago, after a loss to the Carolina Panthers that put their record at 3-6 and made the playoffs appear a forlorn hope, the team’s coach was talking like the rest of the season would be about his players auditioning for parts in next season’s cast.  The players must like their jobs because the team has not lost since then.  And Redskins’ rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has become the new face of sports superstardom. Even people who think a “split end” has something to do with a bad hair day, know who “RGIII” is.

But the Redskins’ story is just one of several sagas of resurrection and certainly not the most inspiring. Almost exactly a year before the last day of the 2012 season, Minnesota Vikings’ running back, Adrian Peterson blew out his knee.  He was, at the time, widely acknowledged to be the finest running back in professional football. Most doubted that he would ever be that good again and a few wondered if his career might not be over.

On Sunday, he ran for 199 yards against the Green Bay Packers and carried the Vikings to a win they needed to make the playoffs. For the season, Peterson accumulated 2,097 yards rushing.  This left him 9 yards short of the all-time record.

And, then, there was Peyton Manning who had been unable to play at all last season due to a neck injury that required three surgeries.  His old team let him go and could be forgiven.  But Manning still wanted to play and found a home in Denver where he took the Broncos to the playoffs and the best record in their conference.  If the stars remain in alignment and earth continues spinning on its axis, in late January the Broncos and Manning will play the New England Patriots and Tom Brady for a spot in the Super Bowl.

And, then, there is the team that let Manning go.  Without him, the Indianapolis Colts had the worst record in the NFL last year.  If the NFL follows any biblical injunction, it is that “the last shall go first,” so the Colts’ sorry record give them first call in the annual draft of college players and they used it to take Andrew Luck in the fervent hope that he would be the next great Colts quarterback in a line that ran back through Manning to Johnny Unitas.

But it might take a while.  The Colts were rebuilding.  Many new players.  New general manager.  New head coach.  It would, necessarily, be a tough season.  And it got tougher when that new head coach was diagnosed with leukemia.  One of his assistants took over while he was in treatment.

On Sunday, Coach Pagano returned to the sideline.  Andrew Luck threw for 191yards and 2 touchdowns as the Colts beat the favored Houston Texans 28-16, finishing the season at 11-5 and sailing into the playoffs.

Call it Comeback Sunday.  Or, even, Resurrection Sunday.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming of fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings.  But take heart.  The playoffs begin on Saturday.

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