When The Football Is Meaningless, What’s Left?
12:29 PM EST on December 3, 2020
As a football showcase, Wednesday afternoon's farce of a contest between several probably asymptomatic-but-honestly-who-the-hell-knows Ravens and the only slightly less ravaged Steelers had zero value. After it was over, the man who disgustedly called his own team "junior varsity" and blamed an "unacceptable" performance in "all three phases" on his team flatly "sucking" at football was the coach of the winning team. The Steelers had three red-zone drops, threw a pick in the end zone, fumbled the ball three times, missed an extra point, and allowed a 70-yard touchdown pass from a third-string quarterback. They also won, 19-14, in a game that was both uglier and more lopsided than its unimpressive final score.
When a game has no value whatsoever as an athletic spectacle, the thing to wonder is what it accomplishes in the context of the season around it. This game also accomplished nothing in that regard. This is not uncommon in games held between bottom-feeders in the final weeks of a season, but this was nominally a Week 12 tilt between division rivals with serious playoff aspirations. It's hard to make such a contest meaningless, but the NFL found a way: The Ravens had not practiced for more than a couple hours in more than a week; damn near half their team spent time on COVID-19 reserve over the preceding two weeks. Absolutely nothing of relevance to the competitive narrative of this football season was established, or supported, or even gleaned, unless you were holding onto a bizarre suspicion that Baltimore's stiff, blinking, wildly out-of-sorts backups were somehow better than the reasonably intact, undefeated Steelers. That the compromised result will matter to the playoff picture just damages the legitimacy of those playoffs. It makes the whole thing even dumber than it already was.
It also lays bare just exactly what Roger Goodell meant when he described the season's dire and unconscionable condition on Dec. 2, during an alarming leaguewide surge in COVID-19 cases, as "a remarkable achievement." You're left with the realization that the whole and sole reason to stage this ridiculous contest, to jam it in mid-week during soap opera hours, was to deliver inventory of any quality to a television network, in order to fulfill broadcast agreements. Worse, you're forced to wrestle with the creeping sense that there's a certain own-the-libs-ness in the NFL's determination to complete every game, even as the quality and value and meaning of each game slips into and then beneath absurdity. A deranged, kamikaze demonstration of pure willpower is being brute-forced to its nightmare conclusion, for reasons that are increasingly only relevant and comprehensible to the people at the very top of the league.
It's illuminating to note how this is being processed by individuals at the various levels of power. Goodell has been tasked with the narrow job of making sure it all just happens, at whatever cost, and so to him it is already a "remarkable achievement." Down a level or two from there is Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who risks comparatively little at his level of interaction with the whole doomed spectacle, and whose job it is to send at least 22 upright human beings out onto the field once a week. To Harbaugh, the circumstances may be far from perfect, but what are you gonna do? The job is to make football happen, and the league is sure doing that:
"I just feel like the league did their best. We did our best. We didn't bat 1.000. Nobody did. The league didn't. Nobody did. You can't bat 1.000 against this thing. But I think our response, in terms of our effort, was a perfect effort."John Harbaugh via ESPN
Near the bottom of all of this, as is always the case, is the pool of workers, the people who actually make the product. It will not surprise you to learn that they do not regard the completion of some number of pointless football games during a pandemic as a goal that is worth all costs. For Robert Griffin III, who started at quarterback for the Ravens without the benefit of any real practice time or even a stable lineup around him, the circumstances of this game were enough to make him openly question the league's commitment to player safety:
"It's not about whether or not guys want to play. It's about whether or not our safety is actually being taken into account. I can't say much more than that ... I pulled a hamstring today. I've never pulled a hamstring in my life. You see guys going down left and right."
Griffin confirmed to ESPN that infected players have passed the coronavirus on to family members, and said that as much as he and his teammates love playing football, they "also want to make sure our families are safe." Teammate Chuck Clark called into question the protocols the NFL is (unsuccessfully) following in order to (unsuccessfully) prevent transmission and outbreaks:
"I don't know what comes with me saying this, but, of course, on Monday and Tuesday, we're wondering, why were we allowed back in the building if we say everything is based off contact tracing and things like that, and that's what's told to us? We've got to look at some of those things."
It sure starts to sound less and less like a remarkable achievement when described by the people with the most at risk! Guys are worried about their health and their families, and when they describe the NFL's slipshod, haphazard pursuit of 256 completed football games in 17 weeks, it sounds more like what it is, which is arbitrary, cruel, and dangerous. The single dumbest week of NFL football in living memory was completed because the single dumbest game of that week was finally played. It meant nothing and it had no value, but it cost a lot.