It is probably not the wisest idea to swallow the earthworm being dangled by a man who has already contributed to the destruction of at least one professional football league, but hey, I ain’t the dude who started this, and I suppose I should address the utterly Trumpian red herring that the NFL has somehow gotten “soft,” because it is a good way of noting that the Donald’s sports metaphors are as thoroughly ironic as everything else about this looking-glass moment in American politics.
Do you want to know why, as Trump noted, the NFL wild-card games were so overarchingly “crummy” and “boring?” It was not because the game has somehow grown less violent, and it is not because Ray Fucking Nitschke is dead and buried, or because Lawrence Taylor is no longer shattering Joe Theismann’s tibia on national television and it is not because the referees are somehow conspiring to devise a more foolproof method of getting laid by hurling needless penalty flags on the frigid ground (though I look forward to the upcoming episode of Ballers that addresses this issue). No, these games were periodically crummy and boring because football is at its best when it permits for fluidity and motion and beauty amid the bracing moments of violence, and in the ugliest moments of this weekend, none of that beauty was present.
The problem with the NFL is that it is often too violent and bogged down in physicality, particularly come playoff time, when the weather and the circumstances dictate as much; the problem with the NFL is that when it matters, it often degenerates into a game without balance, a game that relies too much on brute force rather than intelligence.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Cincinnati, where the Bengals, being the Bengals, completely napalmed a victory through the sheer force of their own rampant and brutal stupidity. First, there was Vontaze Burfict, delivering the kind of needless blow to the head of Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown that had about as much in common with Ray Nitschke as a bar fight in Toledo has in common with Ali-Frazier. And then there was Adam “Pacman” Jones, compounding that mistake by nudging a referee in an attempt to get up in the grill of Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter (who, admittedly, should not have been anywhere near midfield in the first place), thereby allowing the Steelers to boot a game-winning field goal in an 18-16 victory.
That was the worst of it, but everywhere you looked, the reason the NFL felt so out-of-sorts this weekend is because it got weighted down in its own heaviness. The most whimsical play of the weekend was when the Houston Texans, in the midst of getting blown away by the methodical Kansas City Chiefs, put defensive lineman J.J. Watt in a wildcat formation on the goal line and allowed him to barrel forth (perhaps expectedly, it failed miserably and Watt wound up limping off the field with a groin injury before the game’s end). Some of this wasn’t even the players’ faults: In Minnesota, for instance, where it was so damned cold that you kept waiting for an actual Viking to line up in the backfield while Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” played in the background, neither the Vikings or the Seahawks could do much of anything, which explains why the game came down to a field goal by a Bret Easton Ellis character named Blair Walsh, whose holder managed to botch the one thing about holding a football that even Lucy Brown has got down pat: Laces out, for Christ’s sake.
As you know by now, Walsh shanked that 27-yard attempt; as you also know by now, the best play in that otherwise unsightly Seahawks victory was an utterly desperate ad-lib by quarterback Russell Wilson that wound up setting up the game’s only touchdown. In fact, the only truly fascinating creative flourish of the weekend came from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who managed to overcome the gale winds in Washington to throw a few picturesque passes to defeat the Redskins.
“It’s going to affect the NFL. I don’t even watch it as much anymore,” Trump said on Sunday, and as always, he has managed to utilize tortured logic to address an undeniable truth: The NFL is suffering, but it is suffering because is trying to come to terms with exactly what Trump was complaining about. The problem with football is not that it is too soft; the problem is that the instinctual tendency toward brute force often overwhelms the sport’s underlying intellectual principles. But hell, I guess Trump wouldn’t know the first thing about a metaphor like that.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb