Monday, December 20, 2010
On Football, Giants, Punters and Accountability
I have a non-popular take on Coughlin-Dodge situation. Good for the coach for holding accountable the player, who flat didn't do his job.--SI's Dominic Bonvissuto, via Twitter
A week ago, the Washington Redskins cut their starting punter. This would have been unremarkable except for the fact that the Redskins cut Hunter Smith because he botched the hold on a game-tying extra point. Smith was not having a particularly good season, but even so, he was cut because of one botched attempt to grip the pigskin, and he accepted the blame, in surprisingly eloquent fashion: "People that are my age -- and a little younger, and a little older -- want to blame somebody else, and they tend to want to self-protect," Smith said. This, of course, is a facile way of romanticizing the past, but even if you agree that it applies to modern society, I don't think it has anything to do with professional football.
Most sports are pretty bizarre, when you step back and consider them. Pro football is no exception: These are grown men subject to militaristic regulation in service of a child's game. There is something inherently weird about that, which is why it always kind of skeeves me out to watch Tom Coughlin pace the sidelines. As far as I can tell, Coughlin is as old-school and militaristic as coaches get; he appears purposefully dour and unhappy in almost all public situations, and unlike Bill Belichick, there is not the underlying sense that his players have some surreptitious grasp of his humanity. Most of the time when I watch Tom Coughlin, he just reminds me of the football coach from Dazed and Confused.
Now, it's possible that perception is completely misguided. It's possible that I just don't understand Tom Coughlin at all, and that Tom Coughlin spends the off-season breeding puppies to deliver to blind children; but even if the public Tom Coughlin is the real Tom Coughlin, I do understand that there is a place for discipline and accountability in football. I just think that people who preach about it in ceaseless fashion are ignoring the fact that no job in America is grounded more in discipline and accountability than that of a professional football player. How many times have marginal players who have repeatedly risked their own health and safety in service of a chosen batch of laundry been cut for missing a single block, or a single catch, or a single kick? Nothing provides accountability more than an overzealous fan base, a highly-paid coaching staff, and a national television audience, which is why I'm certain that as soon as Matt Dodge was unable to punt the ball out of bounds at the end of that game yesterday afternoon, he knew as well as anyone that he'd failed to complete his assigned task. He is not a superstar; he does not exist in a bubble; his error did not take place in some faraway gentleman's club or in a dogfighting kennel. He didn't need an authority figure to berate him publicly to understand the ramifications of his mistake.* It is very possible that Matt Dodge will be associated with that single play for the remainder of his life. The same can not be said for Coughlin, who had the good luck to win a Super Bowl due to one of the most fortuitous plays in the history of professional football.
That's what sets professional football apart from the rest of the world: Sometimes--and especially for those whose job it is to kick a football to a precise area in space--the difference between doing your job and not doing your job is a momentary lapse of concentration in the midst of tremendous pressure. And the moment of accountability tends to last forever.
*In truth, even Coughlin's attempt to accept the blame afterward felt kind of like a kick in the groin: I will take responsibility for the fact that the punter I've been utilizing all season is an inexperienced slack-off who couldn't handle his responsibilities.