The Year of Living Cautiously
Bill Simmons [ARCHIVE]
November 30, 2012
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We will remember the 2012 NFL season for Peyton Manning's astonishing comeback; the bumbling replacement refs (and the ensuing furor about the bumbling replacement refs); Golden Tate's "Fail Mary"; San Francisco's ballsy quarterback switch; the dueling Andy Reid/Norv Turner collapses; Atlanta shattering the record for "How the hell did they win that game?" victories; a truly bizarre Saints season that's playing out like the worst sports movie ever made; ChuckStrong; a slew of sloppy Thursday-night football games; Adrian Peterson's comeback; the Ass-to-Sanchez fumble; the magic of RG3 and the anti-magic of Blaine Gabbert; Houston winning two overtime games in less than 100 hours; Adderall's emergence as the NFL's new drug of choice (or handy excuse for a four-game suspension, or both); too many Aaron Rodgers commercials; God's blistering hatred of Cleveland and Kansas City; and, of course, Roger Goodell turning into Warden Norton from Shawshank, botching a variety of high-profile situations, contradicting himself in the most basic ways and making a legitimate run at Gary Bettman's "Most Inept Commissioner" crown. Somehow, we're not going to remember Tim Tebow even a little — he's about three years away from appearing on Survivor with a scruffy beard and pretending he's an insurance agent from Tampa.

Just know that we'll remember the lingering effect of concussions — and how it affects the way we watch football — over everything else that happened this season. The sport changed, and it continues to change, and really, I don't know where we're going anymore.

What's acceptable? Where are the lines? Last Sunday, the Seahawks-Dolphins game swung on a seemingly ludicrous call: Ryan Tannehill throwing the ball up for grabs in the end zone right as Seattle's Earl Thomas (running full-speed) jumped toward him with his arms outstretched, trying to deflect what ended up being a truly rancid pass that Seattle picked off easily. Only one problem: As Thomas was following through with his deflecting motion, Tannehill moved and one of Thomas's hands struck him in the head. Accidental, unintentional contact that only Bruce Lee or one of the Matrix characters could have avoided. What happened? They whistled Thomas with a penalty and gave the ball back to the Dolphins, who immediately tied the game and went on to win by three.

As the only person who picked the Seahawks to make the Super Bowl, as well as someone who would have wagered on Seattle (laying three points) if gambling were legal, the call left me more outraged than Alton's whiny, pathetic, legacy-altering, mail-in-of-a-performance in The Challenge did three days later. I even wondered in a tweet why the league didn't make helmet-to-helmet and inadvertently-hit-someone-because-they-were-in-midair-when-the-target-moved-and-couldn't-stop-because-it's-effing-impossible-to-change-what-your-brain-already-told-your-body-in-less-than-a-split-second penalties reviewable. If the goal of the instant-replay process is "getting game-turning calls correct," then shouldn't coaches be able to challenge massively important 15-yard penalties that may have been interpreted incorrectly? In the moment, I genuinely believed that Thomas's penalty (a) was the wrong call, and (b) altered the course of that Seahawks-Dolphins game.

Here's the funny part: Two days later, I learned that the NFL penalized Thomas for the play. Fifteen thousand dollars!!!! My man Mike Florio even defended the league and said it was the right call! And you know what else? IT PROBABLY WAS THE RIGHT CALL! You're not allowed to intentionally hurt quarterbacks, mistakenly hurt quarterbacks or even hurt their feelings anymore. It's a zero-tolerance policy for anything involving the words "quarterbacks" and "hurt." Same goes for defenseless receivers over the middle. Same goes for punters as they're kicking the football. Same goes for defenseless kick returners or defensive players getting annihilated by blind-side blocks … well, except for you, Eric Weddle.

So it's been something of an adjustment season — players recalibrating how they compete in a violent sport that only occurs at warp speed, a game they've been playing their entire lives a certain way, only now someone is telling them, "No, no, no, you have to play it THIS way now." Are we giving them enough credit for the difficulty of that task? Whenever I play pickup basketball, I invariably make a few spur-of-the-moment decisions that, even before they unfold into a play, my brain is realizing, "No! Don't do it!" after my body had already decided, "This is a great idea! I'm doing this!" and suddenly, I'm throwing a half-court pass to someone who isn't even remotely open. That's the biggest problem with getting old, and the biggest reason why I'm probably going to stop playing basketball soon: The mind-to-body delay between "This is a great idea! I'm doing this!" and "No! Don't do it!" has become a little too long for me. Well, unless I start doing HGH and chugging Adderall like Pez. And don't think I'm not thinking about it.

But isn't the length of that delay, as well as how it's handled, one of the things that defines any athletic performance? When Drew Brees threw those two terrible picks last night against Atlanta (I know he had five, but there were two especially egregious ones), I guarantee his brain was telling his right arm "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" even as his right arm was following through with a suddenly hopeless pass. You have hundreds of these moments every single football game, many of them happening with players traveling 20 miles an hour. Now we're attempting to govern them? No wonder it's been so bumpy.

And yet, every time someone gets decked, or someone is lying there twitching on the ground, you feel an entirely different emotion watching them reenter the game a few plays later. Was that too soon? Are we sure? And you hope they didn't tell a lie to their coaches so they could get back in there. Think about how much THAT changed compared to the old days — when we celebrated monster hits, poked fun at Troy Aikman's Concussion Face (a comedy staple in this column once upon a time), listened to meathead announcers yelp delightedly "He got … JACKED … UP!!!!!!!!!!!" and celebrated the Ronnie Lotts and Steve Atwaters for patrolling the middle and leaving a trail of limp bodies.

So it isn't just football that's changing. We're changing. I never really thought about it until a Middlebury, Vermont, reader named Patrick e-mailed me, "While also being absolute masterpieces, the 'Madden' 2000 and 2002 intros show how much softer the NFL has gotten over the years. Both of them thrive off the helmet to helmet hits that the league is trying to distance itself from now."

He didn't provide YouTube links, so I went and found them myself. They're amazing. Here's the cartoonishly violent 2000 intro...
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