It wasn’t that long ago that the National Football League – the jewel of professional sports – appeared to be in serious trouble, if not real decline. The New Orleans Saints’ head coach, former defensive coordinator, and several players had been suspended for putting “bounties” on opposing players. Hurt an opposing player enough to put him on the ground and out of the game and you earned some cash. An ugly scandal, certainly, but only because of the money. Does anyone doubt that Dick Butkus, in his day, played with the idea of sending opposing players to the bench, or the hospital, for the rest of the day. Still … bounties.
Then, there was the walkout by the NFL’s officials. There were several issues in dispute and, predictably, they included pensions and accountability. Which made the thing sound very much like the Chicago teachers’ strike.
But the NFL did not send the players and the fans home to wait it out but, instead, played the scheduled games using replacement officials. Disastrously.
The moment of maximum crisis came in a close game between Green Bay and Seattle. Time was running out, Green Bay was leading; the Seattle quarterback launched what is known in the trade as a “Hail Mary.” Throw the ball into the end zone and hope one of your guys gets it in the scrum.
Millions of television viewers saw a Green Bay player go up and catch the ball and one of the Seahawks try to grab it away from him. As they came down, one official signaled for a touchdown, the other for an interception. After further review (as they say), the touchdown call was upheld. Fans, commentators and, not least, Green Bay players screamed bloody murder, to no avail, and there was a lot of dark talk about threats to “the integrity of the game.”
Lurking in the background of all this was a crisis with the potential to be lethal to the sport. Namely, the possibility that even a short career in the NFL could lead to serious long term health problems to include dementia. The suicides of at least two former NFL players and a nascent lawsuit by several former players raised the possibility that the NFL might not survive and questions about whether, indeed, it should.
Well, for now the game seems to have found the best antidote for the gloom that has infected it and found it in the most likely place. Namely, on the field, between the sidelines. The NFL just had one of those weekends that keeps fans who might be feeling the first twinges of disenchantment coming back and making them glad they did.
It is a season for rookie quarterbacks and four of the five who are starting, were winners on Sunday. Hard to say which of them is the most notable but not who is the most electrifying. That would be Robert Griffin III (aka RG3) of the Washington Redskins. Griffin is what they call a “phenom.” He can beat you with his arm or with his legs and he processes both toughness and leadership. If he can stay upright, he might bring football glory back to Washington, something fans had just about given up on so long as Dan Snyder remained owner of the team.
Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks (the man who threw the offending “Hail Mary”) played a better game than the opposing quarterback who was Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and for the last decade or so, the league’s finest. Winner of three Super Bowls and the precision offensive instrument in the hands of his mad doctor coach, Bill Belichick. Wilson put the Patriots away with a 46 yard touchdown pass in the last minute and a half of the game.
Miami’s Ryan Tannehill led the Dolphins to a close win and Brandon Weeden, Cleveland’s 28 year-old quarterback got the Brown’s their first win. Among the NFL’s rookie quarterback, only Andrew Luck of the Colts was not a winner last weekend and he may have been coming off the high of beating Green Bay a week earlier.
But the finest show by an NFL quarterback in the season’s sixth week, was turned in on Monday night by one of the league’s aging stars and busiest pitchmen. Peyton Manning took time off from selling Buicks and Papa John’s pizza to show the world – and especially the unfortunate San Diego Chargers – how it is done. Manning spotted the Chargers 24 points at halftime, with his team on the road. That kind of lead is inevitably spoken of as “insurmountable.”
After the opening kickoff of the second half, Manning took his new team, the Denver Broncos, smartly down the length of the field for a touchdown. He made it look easy. Though fans – and perhaps the Chargers’ secondary players – had been warned that Manning and his receivers are not yet entirely “on the same page.”
After that touchdown, the Chargers gave the Broncos one on a turnover. Then, on the first play of the third quarter, the gods revealed their plan to the astonished mortals. The Broncos were down 10 and looking at a third-and-16 from midfield. Manning did his ants-in-your-pants act, took the snap in the shotgun and threw complete to Jacob Tamme for 25 yards. The touchdown pass that followed a little later felt inevitable enough to be anticlimactic.
Manning was 13 for 14, with 167 yards and three touchdowns in the last two quarters. And the final score was 35 -24.
You could say it was a nearly sublime comeback. For the Broncos and the NFL.
And Manning? Maybe. Or maybe just another day at the office.