The Emperor's New Headset

Between my crippling fear of seeing Tony Siragusa in person, the unflattering work clothes, and the likelihood of traumatic brain injury, it’s safe to say that I really do not want to play in the NFL. That makes it somewhat easier to bear that I haven’t had a serious contract offer from a NFL team in months, but it doesn’t quite explain the fact that, still, some adolescent brain node periodically beams strange fantasies into my mind. I’m executing shifty cut-backs and running for daylight on a crowded stretch of a crosstown street in Manhattan, and suddenly — and briefly, and embarrassedly — I’m Barry Sanders. Times Square is, briefly, Soldier Field or something, and the eyes-up waddlers choking some midtown artery are the helpless, hapless also-rans in some dramatically scored highlight-reel. (In worse moods, the tourists and slow-walkers and meandering texters are receivers hung out to dry on a crossing route, and I’m a Steve Atwater-ish safety, steaming with that obscure and vicious loathing specific to safeties and all too ready to hand out some concussions) And then it breaks, and I’m myself again — a thirtysomething goof with a literary physique, running late for some appointment or other. That the fantasies are so persistent is kind of shameful, but there is some good news buried in all that ridiculousness. And that is that I have not yet crossed the bar into darker territory — that other shore where men dream of being football coaches.

There’s a distinction to be drawn, I guess, between college football coaches and NFL coaches. The odd Sloppy Joe exceptions notwithstanding, contemporary high-end college coaches have a trim, churchgoing aesthetic about them — the sort of men who play heroic amounts of golf, eat a lot of grilled chicken (almost no fat), and have uncomplicated relationships with a personal savior. Photoshop a suit onto Florida’s Urban Meyer or Alabama’s Nick Saban, and you’ve got a three-term Republican congressman who refers to a specific group of people as “illegals.” Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I walked into a sporting goods store in my hometown and was surprised to see it transformed from the shabby emporium of my youth into what I can only describe as Coach Mart — the entire stock was given over to windbreakers and polo shirts and stern nylon pullovers in the colors of the high school sports teams. This is in suburban New Jersey — the mind reels at the prospect of how profoundly That Urban Meyer Look has influenced the middle-aged males of, say, South Carolina’s swathes of golf course-adjacent sprawl. We will live long enough to see a certain type of dad wearing coaches whistles around their necks in the way that their wives wear necklaces.

NFL coaches, for their part, are a different and more outwardly desperate bunch. Where college coaches spend their hours private-jetting around the southeast and attempting to charm the mothers of linebacking prodigies, NFL coaches — well, they don’t seem to sleep much as a rule, and the lifestyle seems notably more isolating and un-fun. While that may be broadly true of the head-coaching gig itself, it’s obviously different for different coaches, and different types of coaches.

And those types: There are your Magnificent Walruses, the saturnine and improbably girthy martyrs of game-film study monasticism — Andy Reid would be your representative figure, here. There are the odd ex-players — scary-eyed Mike Singletary with that life-size wooden crucifix bouncing on his chest at one extreme; sleepily devout pokerfaces like Lovie Smith on the other. And the Bill Parcells acolytes, bile-steeped adepts of umbrage and haughtiness powered by a potent combination of brainy mastery and amorphous hate — Bill Belichick, most brilliantly and most biliously, but also howling martinets like Tom Coughlin and all the sourapples that fell from the Belichick/Patriots family tree. It’s both telling and damning that the cohort which includes the totally psychotic Jon Gruden — these would be the third-generation Bill Walsh followers, who worked under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay during the 1990s and stand out for including vaguely decent-seeming people like Steve Mariucci and Marty Mornhinweg — actually seems to be the most functionally human. Or at least they do among the classifiables. There are other coaches who aren’t so easily classified, and it’s outliers like Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Atlanta’s Mike Smith who appear possessed of an ineffable football coachiness that makes them seem more organic and a bit more admirable than their peers. It is either a case of me reverse-engineering my argument or a result of that ineffable thing that these coaches tend to be good at their jobs.

That ineffable thing is not calm, exactly, but it does manifest as that. In the best contemporary NFL coaches, there is a sort of basic confidence in and conversance with the old masculinisms of football rhetoric and an ability to imbue some ring of new and particular truth in old truisms, but there’s also something deeper than that, a self-certainty that scans as fully understood and earned. That sort of cool self-security is rare, in football coaches or football players or football fans or football non-fans or football columnists — or Presidents of the United States — and its combination of scarcity and grace makes it uniquely enviable, even if it’s no guarantee of success. Mike Tomlin couldn’t win with the Carolina Panthers any more than a reasonable chief executive (pick one) could self-assuredly reason his way to legislative success in a Congress populated by frothy, hacked-off adolescents. But just as surely as there are more tinhorn Chamber of Commerce chuckleheads in the House of Representatives (and the world) than there are Barack Obamas, there are more insecure overcompensation specialists among the NFL’s coaching caste than there are legitimately and profoundly confident Tomlin types. Which delivers the results you’d expect, in both cases.

And that result, as we’ve seen on issues of such utter and inarguable comparability as the START Treaty and the way in which Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher handled the desultory mutinous noises of quarterback Vince Young, is not so much bad rhetoric and bad faith and bad decision-making as it is, finally, simple and silly performance. What the average member of Congress actually does in a day’s work is just as opaque and obscure as what Andy Reid does in his average 18-hour day. We can guess at certain things — fundraising phone calls and parm-style sandwiches, respectively — but it shades into the inexplicable at a certain point. In both cases, though, there is a very simple way to tell when it isn’t working. It’s a different kind of loudness, a specific type of look-at-me bluster that depends on a very specific sort of horror — the simple and almost-always-justified fear of being found out as full of shit. That fear, in turn, leads to a familiar and frustrating bluster-intensive discursive style, one performed through assertions and re-assertions of individual dominance and grounded in a terrified stubbornness and paralytic constriction of thought.

Which, honestly, isn’t that hard to relate to. The insecurity that comes with responsibility isn’t an illusion — people really are watching, people really will notice if you fuck up. The fear that follows has the function of telescoping reason into a blind alley that’s only wide enough for one, and making every choice — every decision point, if you like — about the decision-maker. And so we get the terrified lizard-brain twitchiness and frantic deference of a shit-scared about-to-be-fired Brad Childress — who was, finally, fired by the Minnesota Vikings last month — or the puffed-up tough talk and hamfisted Hulk-smash assertiveness that has defined Jeff Fisher’s recent handling of his frustrated quarterback’s brittle bravado. And so, too, we get the Custer-grade idiocy of Senator Jon Kyl’s baffled and proud stand against nonproliferation, or the seething, stupid certainty with which various Congressmen on the right have attempted to one-up each other in their disdain for the extension of unemployment benefits and those who would receive them.

They’re in tough spots, all of them, and complicated questions with complicated consequences — although, honestly, START doesn’t seem that tough — always beg for simplification. But fear can focus the mind too sharply and on the wrong object, and lead to an overdetermined determination. Standing before a locker room or a Senate chamber with much at stake, facing a bristling brace of microphones and knowing that one’s words will be heard and have consequences — this is fucking terrifying, for one, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it. But it also calls for complex judgment, and demands real and un-simple courage.

There is a difference between being calm and being unworried in these situations, I think, but one doesn’t need to be blithely without qualm to project the calm I’m talking about. What is needed, though, is the generosity of mind to acknowledge and comprehend the plain and daunting truth that big decisions have consequences for those besides the person making them. It’s not hard to tell who can deal with that and who can’t — how and how loudly the decision arrives has something to do with it, but the answer itself is where the answer is. It is so much easier to be petty when the only thing on your mind is your own lonely self.

And then there’s this: I have passed my inanimate object rival for the first time this season. I can’t really gloat, though, because Toonie is made of metal and I am made of dazzling intellect, boyish good looks and adjectives, and also because I trailed the freaking coin for like three months. So let’s just get to the picks. Oh, also:I’ve incorporated Thursday’s predictions — both the coin and I were winners — into our overall records. That’s a really important note, and will no doubt interest many readers. As always: coin flips by Garey G. Ris, betting lines by

Week 12 (and overall): David Roth: 10–6 (88–81–9); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 9–7 (87–82–9)

Sunday, December 5
• Chicago (-4.5) at Detroit, 1:00 pm — DR: Chicago; ATTLCTDC: Detroit
• New Orleans (-7) at Cincinnati, 1:00 pm — DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: New Orleans
• Jacksonville at Tennessee (NO LINE), 1:00 pm — DR: Jacksonville; ATTLCTDC: Tennessee
• Washington at New York Giants (-7), 1:00 pm — DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• Buffalo at Minnesota (-5.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Buffalo; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• San Francisco at Green Bay (-9.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: San Francisco
• Denver at Kansas City (-9),1:00 pm — DR: Kansas City; ATTLCTDC: Denver
• Cleveland at Miami (-4.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Cleveland; ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Oakland at San Diego (-13), 4:05 pm — DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: San Diego
• Atlanta (-3) at Tampa Bay, 4:15 pm — DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Tampa Bay
• St. Louis (-3.5) at Arizona, 4:15 pm — DR: St. Louis; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Carolina at Seattle (-6), 4:15 pm — DR: Carolina; ATTLCTDC: Carolina
• Dallas at Indianapolis (-5.5), 4:15 pm — DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
• Pittsburgh at Baltimore (-3), 8:20 pm — DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Baltimore

Monday, December 6
• New York Jets at New England (-3.5), 8:30 pm — DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!

Image by SD Dirk, from Flickr.