The Knife's Edge
The night was cold and raw, with winds gusting up to forty miles per hour, but as I walked through the chill to the sideline of the M&T Bank Stadium on December 3, 2007, I was reminded of how much I love the game of professional football.
The team I coached, the Baltimore Ravens, was free-falling through a painful losing streak, standing at 4-7 after five straight losses. People were calling for my job and questioning whether I'd lost my team. We were going into a game against the 11-0 New England Patriots, the most imposing team the league had seen in more than twenty seasons, and few people outside the Ravens' locker room gave us much of a chance.
But all week long, we had felt otherwise. In watching game films, we'd seen teams like the Redskins and Bills shy away from challenging New England's defense, failing to exploit the deteriorating speed of their aging linebacking corps. We knew that with our bruising offensive line, we could hammer the Patriots and wear them down. I emphasized all week that a ten-play touchdown drive would be better than a ninety-yard bomb.
With the hopes for building on our 13-3 success of 2006 already dashed, there was a sense throughout the team that this game might be the season's last great stand. No one said it out loud, because they were professionals and we still had a month of games left to play, but the feeling was palpable. It was Monday night and we were at home in front of a national television audience. The raucous Ravens fans were their usual boisterous selves. The team was keyed up as well, and particularly focused on this night. Just a week earlier, three of our players — University of Miami alums Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Willis McGahee — had buried their close friend Sean Taylor of the Redskins, who'd been slain by an intruder at his home in Miami. They'd dedicated this game to Taylor's memory.
So we were at an emotional peak, and from very early on (after the Patriots' Ben Watson dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone, forcing New England to settle for a field goal), I had the sense that we would be in the game for the whole sixty minutes. And what a game it was. It had a reckless, frantic quality, with bodies flying around and making frightening hits, exactly the way former players like to remember they played the game. There were big plays, big mistakes, players performing in a barely controlled frenzy (and sometimes — as when our frustrated linebacker Bart Scott threw a referee's flag into the stands, incurring a fifteen-yard penalty — just beyond it).
Tempers were running high on the field and on the sidelines. After our quarterback Kyle Boller threw an interception, the Patriots' Rodney Harrison, one of my favorite players in the game, ran by me on the sidelines and launched into a profanitylaced rant about my quarterback and my team. I responded with a sarcastic kissy-face right back at him, just to let Rodney know that I loved him and that he could kiss my ass.
In the locker room at halftime, the mood was electric, because our players knew we could stay with the Patriots. The game was tied then, and remained so after three quarters. We scored a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and then dug in, hoping we'd done enough to prevail. The Patriots kicked a field goal midway through the fourth quarter and before you knew it, we were asking our defense to hold them off one more time.
No one on our coaching staff was surprised. We had known all along that even if we could wear them down, control the tempo, and take a lead into the end of the game, the Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady would bring them back. We were just hoping we had enough left defensively to make the key play at the end. As it turned out, we did. On fourth and one during the final drive, we stoned Brady on a quarterback sneak.
Only it didn't count. Our defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, had called time-out from the sidelines a split second before the play occurred. He had always had the latitude to do so, and he'd saved us from disaster with these timely bailouts in the past. This time, though, the time-out nullified the play and gave the Patriots another chance. But the defense came up again, stopping Heath Evans for a one-yard loss, as the stadium rocked with the roars of the Baltimore faithful.
Only that didn't count either. False start on New England, so the play was nullified. Now it was fourth and six, though it felt like sixth and six. How many times would we have to stop them? Brady called a pass, our defensive alignment was perfect, we had receivers covered all over the field. But Tom Brady is Tom Brady. He scrambled for twelve yards and the first down, and in the process crushed our spirit. Moments later, he threw a touchdown that won the game for New England.
The mood in the locker room afterward was anguished. We knew we'd given it our best, and I struggled for the words to adequately recognize the immensity of the effort. Some players said frankly that the season was over — and thereafter a few played as though that was the case. Some accused the NFL and referees of bias in favor of the Patriots. It was the inevitable talk of a group of proud players who were facing the reality of a year's worth of work going down the drain.
Meanwhile, as I left the stadium, I knew the loss would only increase the calls, within the media, for my firing. But I wasn't really worried about this; I'd signed a new four-year contract earlier in the year, and our owner, Steve Bisciotti, had assured me, both publicly and privately, that he was determined to keep the leadership in place.
As it turned out, that didn't count either. After two more losses, we won our last game of the season, against the archrival Steelers, and I showed up at the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills, Maryland, the next morning, ready to start gearing up for the off-season. It was then that a somber Ozzie Newsome, my close friend and the Ravens' general manager, gave me the news: I was being fired. Bisciotti, when he spoke to me, couldn't have been nicer.
There's a theory in the NFL that after nine or ten years of hammering home the same philosophy, a coach is going to be tuned out by his players. That belief might have led to the firing, but in the final analysis, it was our 5-11 record that sealed my fate. I have been asked the question: What if we'd won that game, been the only team in the league to beat the Patriots in the regular season? Would I still be coaching the Ravens today? My guess is that probably I would. But I could be wrong. That's the knife's edge that this game is played on, for players, coaches, general managers, and owners.
Now here's the other side of that knife: Back in December 2007, I wasn't the only one taking heat. Just a week before our game with the Patriots, you could have heard rumblings about another team that seemed to have lost its way. The mediocre club had a dead man walking for a head coach, and its performance, in an ugly 41-17 home loss in late November, was so inept that it caused longtime observers not merely to wonder why the embattled coach was still in place, but also to ask pointed questions about whether the young quarterback (who threw four interceptions that day) would ever develop, what the new general manager had been thinking during the off-season, and why the franchise was having so much difficulty finding a sense of direction.
Barely two months later, that same imperfect, floundering team stood as the world champions of professional football. The improbable rise of the New York Giants, who'd barely managed to get into the playoffs as a fifth seed, is an example of the remarkable parity in the modern National Football League, a theme largely obscured during the 2007 season as the Patriots became the first team to march through a sixteen-game regular season without a loss. The Giants, viewed as something of a playoff impostor even in the league's weaker conference, the NFC, began to cohere in December and, once the playoffs arrived, consistently outperformed their favored opponents, first beating Tampa Bay, then knocking off their nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys, then going to Green Bay to vanquish the Packers in an Ice Bowl sequel that turned out to be Brett Favre's last stand as a Packer. Finally, they traveled to Super Bowl XLII and did what the Ravens couldn't quite do, ending the season-long unbeaten run of the Patriots. It was the second time in three years that a wild-card team had run the table, winning three road games and a Super Bowl to capture the Lombardi Trophy.
Want a more recent example? Take a look at what was being said about the Arizona Cardinals after their horrendous 47-7 loss to the New England Patriots on December 21, 2008. That desultory performance was their fourth loss in five games, and they hadn't been competitive in three of those games. Though they'd lapped the field in the worst division in pro football, the NFC West, the Cardinals were almost universally dismissed as impostors who didn't belong in the postseason. Then head coach Ken Whisenhunt refocused his team, and they charged through the NFC playoffs, beating Atlanta at home, Carolina on the road, and Philadelphia back at home, to earn the franchise's first ever Super Bowl trip. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, they showed remarkable resolve and fought to the very end before losing a classic.
The Giants in 2007 and the Cardinals in 2008 underscored the razor-thin edge between the very best teams in football and the merely good, as well as the hyperintense level of competition throughout the league. Fifty years after he'd first spoken the words, pro football was still living up to the proclamation of storied commissioner Bert Bell, who said, "On any given Sunday, any of our teams can beat any of our other teams."
In pro football, those given Sundays have grown richer, more popular, more pressurized, more documented, more dissected, and more competitive than at any time in the league's history. Indeed, the game is riding high on more than fifteen years of labor peace, shrewd stewardship, and savvy marketing. At the age of eighty-nine, the National Football League is experiencing another golden age.
Yet I fear that the league itself is like those 18-0 Patriots heading into Super Bowl XLII: vaunted, unvanquished, but strangely vulnerable. And in this case, the stakes are far greater than merely an undefeated season.
The National Football League is a closed universe, in many ways, but it's also a highly complex, densely interconnected one. It's the universe that I've aspired to, matured in, and thrived in. It's the universe, eventually, I was fired from. It's a universe I may well return to someday, because it's one of the most fascinating, challenging, competitive, rewarding fields I know.
But it's hard to see it clearly from the center. For nine seasons, I saw football from the inside, as the head coach of the Ravens. I was privy to a tremendous amount of information that never leaves the locker room or the boardroom, but also insulated from much of the criticism and conflict from above and from outside the organization.
Losing my job was a shock, and a blow to my ego. But I'm a football coach, and it's our nature to try to turn every problem into a challenge, every setback into an opportunity.
So within days of the firing, I decided I wanted to stay busy and remain involved in the game. I accepted an offer to serve as a game analyst for the Fox Network, and agreed to do some pieces on strategy and tactics for the NFL Network.
I decided to write this book as well, because I wanted to explain the game better to those who don't fully understand it and, frankly, I wanted to better understand the game myself.
One can hear the mixture of curiosity and bewilderment — on blogs, on sports radio, in living rooms, and in the newspapers — a nagging sense that beneath all the athleticism, spectacle, and obsession, there's something else going on down on the field, forces of which fans and the media are only dimly aware. That part I know. When I walked out on the field to coach a game, I was aware of that entire mix: the strategy, the financial pressure, the injuries, the players' attitudes, the owner's preoccupations, the media's assumptions, the dense array of hidden details that can subtly turn a game in one direction or another.
But I thought that by taking a few steps back and examining the game from some other angles, I could understand the whole living organism more fully. I wanted to ask a billionaire what possessed him to buy a football team. I wanted to better see the world of football through the eyes of general managers, scouts, players, fans, and the league office. I wanted to try to get a sense of how all the complicated pieces fit together, because sitting in my coach's chair, and dealing with the unforgiving schedules that we live our lives by, I hadn't had the time to examine many of the most pressing questions with the attention they deserved.
There are multiple issues confronting the NFL in the coming years. There's the lingering enigma of the nation's second-largest market, Los Angeles, which has been without an NFL franchise for more than a decade. There's the persistent problem of how the league can best police off-field player behavior while at the same time redoubling its efforts to provide players with life-management support. There is the perennial question of how to make safer a game that is played by faster, larger, stronger athletes than ever before. There is the challenge of policing the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. There is the question of how best to care for physically debilitated retired players, the aging warriors whose stark accounts of inexplicably uninsured health problems became front-page news in recent years. There is, as well, a range of issues left unresolved about expanding the reach of the game, to other platforms, other media, and other markets around the world.
But the biggest unanswered question, dwarfing all the others, is the fate of the collective-bargaining agreement, which was extended in a contentious meeting in March 2006, and which the owners voted to open early in 2008, making 2009 potentially the last year of the NFL's current salary structure. Without another extension, 2010 becomes an "uncapped year," after which, in the absence of a deal, antitrust law almost dictates that the owners will have to lock out the players and shut down pro football in 2011, until an agreement is reached.
So this is an attempt to better understand pro football today, by breaking the modern game down to its elements, in hopes of shedding more light on the relationship between those parts. I have learned that while there is always room for improvement, the universe of pro football has attained a rough equilibrium. In short, the system has worked. And to the wisest heads in the game, what's most worrisome about a pending negotiation is that both sides are agitating for major changes.
"I just hope we can keep all the pieces together," says one longtime club executive. "Because if it falls apart, I'm not sure that we'll ever be able to put it back together again." The future of the sport lies in the hands of the men who run the game itself. What will occur over the next two years is nothing less than a war for the future of the game, a pitched battle for the soul of football. Copyright © 2009 by Brian Billick and Michael MacCambridge