Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Don't Be Dirty

Last week, I was taken to task a little for chiding the officials vis-à-vis the Saints- despite national reprobation: here, here, here and here. Consequently, I further would gently point to today’s NY Times blog “Fifth Down” entitled Do The Saints Play Dirty? agreeing with my point- detailing the fact that their readers and journalists have been unhappy about the unpenalized liberties of the Saints defensive front.

I have zero comment as to whether the Saints are dirty. I imagine it would come right down to party lines- plus a goodly number, like me, with no informed opinion whatsoever.

I’m more interested in the culture Gregg Williams brags about cultivating- which is obviously emblematic of just about everyone in the NFL- and is of course completely contrary to the NFL’s desires to protect their member franchises’ $50-$100M quarterback assets:
“This guy’s got a great clock in his head,” Williams told 104.5 The Zone. “The big thing is that he throws the ball so early that we’re going to have to do a good job of finding ways to get to him, and when we do get to him we’re going to have to make sure he gets a couple ‘remember me’ shots when we get there.”
There are two ways to solve this sort of problem- the physical intimidation of your star players and gate attractions. The first is the NFL approach- which is to punish improper hits and liberties punitively and without regard to intent. As a consequence, the sport enjoys frustrating crippling personal foul penalties not only for true fouls but also inadvertent and meaningless “blows to the head”. Clearly, the fouls are of differing magnitudes, but the League needs to protect these players- particularly in a League where the lack of quality quarterback play is a death sentence: Oakland, Detroit, St. Louis, etc.

The second- and probably much better way- is to allow players to enforce their own code via wink and a nod discipline. This is notable in baseball- where pitchers retaliate “outside the rules” for infractions top the code. Also hockey, where the five minute fighting penalty gives teams a way to police a code of unacceptable behavior toward franchise meal ticket. There is a reason why hockey stars have no where neart the number of lazy, undisciplined hits inflicted on them as quarterbacks, despite playing five times as many games and frequently being unprotected to big, high speed, open ice shots.

Obviously, these techniques are not available or appropriate to all sports. I’ve written before that NASCAR has a hockey helmet problem.
The NHL mandated helmets to protect players’ heads- and "surprisingly" stick fouls and injuries to the head sky-rocketed. Putting the helmet on players’ heads removed the collective responsibility to police your stick to keep your peers from getting hurt. If you are increasing safety, while decreasing responsibility to keep one another safe, you aren’t advancing anything.

NASCAR’s never ending emphasis on safety has achieved a similar effect. They’ve made everything ostensibly “safer”- and accidents are through the roof. Every race now has ten cautions for people running into each other. Not too long ago they were able to run places like Talladega and Bristol with one or two (or zero). Drivers knew craziness could get them hurt or dead.
To wit, the reason the number of wrecks increases is the drivers have no way to enforce a code against poor or reckless behavior.

In the end, the NFL is probably forced into this procedure that emphasizes raw compliance to the letter of the rule over justice. Some of the Saints’ recent play has proved you can’t legislate dirty play- be it inadvertent or deliberate. Much like the speeding ticket, if you can’t prohibit the behavior, then you have got to make it very painful to get caught no matter what the reason.