The Dark Side: Why the Bad Guys Win in the NFL
Issue   |   Wed, 02/04/2015 - 00:34

The week before the Super Bowl is rarely a time when sportswriters have trouble finding a story, but this year’s controversies were particularly juicy.

The Patriots were embroiled in their second cheating scandal of the last decade. Bill Belichick’s defenders note, correctly, that the deflated footballs didn’t make a bit of difference in the AFC championship game that the Patriots won handily. But that doesn’t change the fact that the allegations -- if true -- make Belichick and Tom Brady look arrogant and paranoid at the same time: arrogant in that they thought that they could somehow get away with deflating the balls, and paranoid in that need to control every last aspect of every game.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, played the villain in a different way. From their swaggering physical defense led by Richard Sherman, to Doug Baldwin’s mildly offensive Super Bowl celebration, to Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to say anything but “I’m here so I won’t get fined” to the media, the Seahawks make it clear that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them.
While this year’s villainy is a bit more melodramatic than usual, it’s not exactly news that being nice doesn’t get you anywhere in the NFL. Super Bowls have been won by a succession of intimidating players and tyrannical coaches, going all the way back to Vince Lombardi.

Even in just the last decade, the league has produced all different flavors of jerks, both players and coaches. Al Davis’ Raiders and the early 2000s Bengals were cartoonish, dysfunctional villains, who got arrested off the field and piled up undisciplined penalties on it. Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens made being self-absorbed an art form. The Steelers and Ravens both built great defenses, and a great rivalry, because they willing to hit quarterbacks and defenseless receivers hard, even if it meant incurring big fines from Roger Goodell. The 49ers and Seahawks had a similar thing going in the past couple years, with the added bonus of the Seahawks’ clear disdain for the media. And San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was, by any measure, one of the most successful coaches in the NFL, but the 49ers parted ways with him after just one down year, simply because he was impossible to get along with. Ndamukong Suh has built a reputation as the guy who steps on people, and also, as one of the best defensive linemen in the league. New Orleans, led by head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, paid Saints players to injure opponents.

The common denominator is that with the exception of the Bengals and Raiders, all of these bad guys have been pretty successful. Harrison, Lewis and Sherman all led dominant defenses to Super Bowl wins. Owens and Johnson made themselves famous, probably collecting millions of dollars in endorsements, with their antics. Bountygate coincided with the Saints’ best years, including a Super Bowl win. And then there is Belichick, whose cold, boring brilliance apparently hides a pathological need to cheat. There are probably a bunch of reasons that mean teams tend to win more often, starting with intimidation. Also, teams that are cast as villains get to build an “us vs. the world” mentality. Football is a game of emotion, and any extra piece of it is valuable.

As much as it pays for players to be jerks, coaches seem to have an even bigger incentive to be terrible people. Belichick and Harbaugh stand out, but football coaches in general tend to be controlling, inflexible people. The week after Jonas Gray rushed for 199 yards and four touchdowns, Belichick benched him because he was late for practice. He hasn’t really gotten a chance to redeem himself since. College coaches can be even more tyrannical; Alabama coach Nick Saban’s need to control everything is so famous that, when you type in “Nick Saban,” Google guesses you might want to search for “Nick Saban Napoleon complex.” There are a few “player’s coaches” in the league, most notably Rex Ryan, although Ryan hasn’t exactly been successful over the last three years.

Villains, both players and coaches, have been integral to football’s historical identity. More than any other sport, football has the propensity to be likened to war, and a certain type of fan lionizes the player or coach who will do anything to win.
But in the last decade or so, the sport’s violence has attracted more and more criticism. The crushing hits lead to brain trauma, and some argue the culture of on-field violence engenders off-field violence. This puts the league office in an interesting position: It has to officially condemn the reckless, aggressive play of its best teams. But at the end of every year, Goodell hands the trophy over, often to one of the most physical, or even dirty, teams in the league. A cynic might say that for all his tough posturing – his fines for late hits and his domestic violence ads – Goodell is winking at the violent side of football.

Even some of the league’s policies that are intended to reign aggression in end up encouraging it. Consider Goodell’s fines: Obviously no player wants to lose money to a fine. But think about the competitive advantage a team can get from earning a reputation for not caring about fines. A receiver who knows that Ryan Clark or Bernard Pollard is going to hit him – regardless of whatever fine he might incur – is going to be more cautious when he goes over the middle. The teams that obey the rules, that don’t get fined, are the teams that end up letting wide receivers catch passes in the middle of the field. The league and its players end up going through the theatrical motions: The players give committed fans the violence and swaggering aggression that makes the sport entertaining, while Goodell and the rest of the league office distract the more cultured scolds by flailing around about safety. And this situation is perfect for the person who has some moral qualms about the sport but wants to remain a fan. He can compartmentalize: satisfying his anxiety about the game by saying that Goodell’s hypocrisy is ruining the sport, and continuing to enjoy the play on the field.

The truth is, without a radical rule-change, football will always reward a certain type of violence; violence that is somewhere outside of the lines without being entirely out of control. This has something to do with the humorless personalities NFL coaches tend to display. Their entire job is to control people whose job is to be a little out of control.