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The anonymous and apathetic culture of the NFL

America’s favorite pro sports league has no worthwhile flair. Let’s work to change that.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears
Matt Nagy has been able to establish something rare with the Bears in comparison to his counterparts.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment they buckle their chin straps and tighten their shoulder pads, football players are taught one thing: sacrifice everything in the name of the team. To exist as a football player, let alone be anyone associated with the game, means to not so discretely give up a hardy pursuit of individual glory. This is steadily ingrained into the psyche of anyone that puts on the roughly extra 20 pounds of equipment and steps in between the lines. It is indeed a worthwhile message about life, the greatest team game of all where it’s rare any one person finds success without a boost from someone they know and trust. It’s a lesson that should be bellowed from the mountaintops: find solace in others, and you’ll find honor and achievement in yourself.

The innate problem with this wholesome proverb is that it’s evolved into something else entirely at football’s highest level of play, muddling the original meaning altogether.

Interchangeable stars

In the culture the NFL has meticulously perfected over decades, you’re either A Football Man that works out three times a day, doesn’t put sleeves on in the cold because you’re tough, and watches copious amounts of film on an opponent you won’t play for months, or you’re a lazy, frowned upon nobody. You’re either a person that always hands the ball to officials after scoring a touchdown, or you’re a diva that must repent for your vanity and the distractions you’re causing your team. You’re either committed to the relentless win and loss grind at the cost of showing off any interesting aspects of a personality that may, somewhere, lurk deep inside in you, or you’re not worth the hassle.

NFL players know this is how they have to often operate, or else they’ll be ostracized. Many NFL fans, who have a similar message echoed to them, think along the same obsessive and monotonous lines as a means of outside pressure on those players. Wins, losses, X’s and O’s: they’re the only objects of consequence.

Think about how many NFL players you can name off the top of your head that aren’t quarterbacks, league figureheads, or something related. I’d venture to guess that number isn’t very high. That’s just the way the league would like it. For those that are promoted as the faces of the sport like the PatriotsTom Brady, ChiefsPatrick Mahomes, and PackersAaron Rodgers, they’re almost always team guys first. That isn’t a problem in that they’re laser-focused on achievement as the leaders of their respective franchises. That’s commendable in the pursuit of their own hallowed legacies.

It’s an issue in that there’s little unique or distinguishable about them. Not being able to tell the difference between some of football’s biggest names is a major issue.

If I put you in a room with all three quarterbacks - this could be interchangeable between any set of NFL stars - asked you to close your eyes Bird Box style, then used a voice distorter on them: you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between who is who. Each of their platitudes and cliches would mercilessly drone on and sound exactly the same. They’re focused on getting better, they would say. They give credit to their teammates and coaches, they would reiterate. The other team is quite good, they have nothing but respect for them, would of course be mentioned.

In the all-wonderful pursuit of winning, I suppose that’s fine. Plug the quarterback robot in, make sure they’re charged, and watch them go to work. In a league that prints money in annual revenue but increasingly has little noteworthy going for it, we could, theoretically, do away with the robots. For once, one of these robots going the way of a WWE heel and saying, “Yeah, I threw for five touchdowns and I’m a badass” wouldn’t be the worst thing. But that’s not in their programming.

No star in the NFL is allowed to revel in the moment of most any of their accomplishments, or risk (gasp) being called selfish. No star in the NFL is allowed to let loose and break away from contrived public answers, or risk (gasp) being called a headache. The culture of the NFL, and football by extension, demands this soulless give and take happen every second of every day and every minute of every game.

What began in football as a heartening message about teamwork has instead become everything about leaving what it is that makes yourself special at the door. That’s just the way the NFL likes it.

A worthy anonymous face

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Kansas City Chiefs
This celebratory picture is interchangeable.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Football is also a game that proliferates the ideal of making players replaceable cogs in the machine. Most every player involved is treated as a depreciating business asset, a commodity that’s only as good as how they fit in as a puzzle piece, nothing more.

Look at the Patriots. Outside of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, some of the best parts of their boring buzzsaw of a machine churns on with fresh parts almost every season.

Sony Michel is LeGarrette Blount is Stevan Ridley is Laurence Maroney is Corey Dillon is Antowain Smith. James White is Dion Lewis is Shane Vereen is Danny Woodhead is Kevin Faulk. Where they find one workhorse of a running back to either end, they’ll always find another to plug in should they so choose. They’re inherently the same player that if they slipped your mind, you’d be forgiven.

Their thoroughly unremarkable defense is never built on stars ... at least it hasn’t been for awhile. It’s built on an amorphous amoeba with no recognizable faces as it suffocates any number of young quarterbacks. First-Team All-Pro cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis (2014) and Stephon Gilmore (this season) aren’t necessarily discouraged in Foxborough, but they aren’t the emphasis either.

So as the Patriots make deep playoff run after deep playoff run, and Super Bowl after Super Bowl, their accomplishments tend to drowsily blend in. Colorful characters that haven’t been yet absorbed by the powers that be? Unheard of, focus on the team. Fascinating individual storylines about the Patriots’ rise to unparalleled dominance and prominence? Unheard of, focus on the team.

No one should discount what the 21st century Patriots have been able to do over the course of 17 years. Their run that includes almost as many Super Bowl appearances (9) as playoff losses (10) will likely never be touched by another NFL franchise. But they could not be a more perfect example of what it is the NFL prefers in a marquee team: one that is devoid of style, wonder, and panache.

The Patriots are the embodiment of everything that turns off the casual fan away from what is the most complex sport in existence. Why gravitate to the NFL where you can tell the best team is the same boring sum of it’s parts year after year, when you could tune into other leagues like the NBA that sees individualism as a feature, not side dish. Yes, the growth of the casual fan matters, in case you were about to throw a fit.

New England has, unthinkably, somehow made greatness boring. Previous football dynasties like the 1990s Cowboys, 1980s 49ers, 1970s Steelers, and 1960s Packers could’ve been this way, but they weren’t. Teams like the juggernaut the Warriors in the NBA for example, as dominant as they are, have a way of turning a game on it’s head for a moment with an onslaught of 30-40 foot jumpshots and fastbreak dunks that would make the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s proud. The Patriots, meanwhile, dink and “dunk” their way downfield, talk about the ideals of “doing your job,” and wonder why nobody believes in them.

How exciting.

Identity is not a prescribed mission with the Patriots, and it never has been. It’s oh so fitting they’ve become the face of the black, white, and mostly grey NFL for most of the last two decades.

Respecting the game

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Year after year it’s said the Pro Bowl needs to be “fixed.”

Never mind that it’s a meaningless game that gives some of the league’s premier names a chance to connect with one another and bond, should they so choose. Never mind that the participants in such game (outside of the JetsJamal Adams) don’t have much interest in going all out in a game that isn’t along a path to a championship and only risks injury.

The Pro Bowl should have stakes, damn it. The two teams playing should instead be those playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft! Defense and physical tackling should be an emphasis, not an afterthought! It is a travesty to allow these two largely fan-voted rosters to even take the field against one another, some would say.

Why should something that doesn’t matter and is dramatically removed from the context of the rest of an NFL season be fixed? Where’s the logic in that sentiment beyond being inconceivably starved at not having enough of the modern gladiators beating each other up for the five previous months? Anything in the name of the bloodsport, it seems.

This can’t be overlooked. The amount of people that sanctimoniously bemoaned about a lack of respect for football when running backs like the SaintsAlvin Kamara and CowboysEzekiel Elliott started lining up as pass rushers in the 2019 Pro Bowl was too many to count. A funny little wrinkle for guys hanging out somehow turned into a misrepresentation of what football is supposed to be. An amusing slight shock to the system away from what you’d normally expect from NFL coaches and The Football Men apparently grossly misrepresenting the splendors of the NFL. Kamara, Elliott, and everyone at the Pro Bowl were disrespecting what modern football is supposed to be: a humorless, flavorless game. I must have missed the memo on when football, a game, was preordained to be something that should be taken so seriously every waking moment.

Do you know where you could’ve seen meaningful, high stakes NFL football?

Oh I don’t know, how about Championship Sunday with two high drama games that both went into overtime? Or, this Sunday’s Super Bowl that so happens to feature the Patriots? I guess it isn’t enough.

One exhibition of a game where pro players are hanging out should be acceptable and palatable. But the pervasive, tedious, and underlying culture of the NFL would never allow it.

A motion for fun

Chicago Bears

What separates Matt Nagy’s Bears from most of the active NFL is how quickly they embraced a sharp contrast from their competitors. Football should be fun, football should be something to laugh about, football should have vibrant colors all around. The Bears had that experience every week, and it’s how Nagy got his team to buy in.

The emergence of Club Dub over the course of the 2018 season, where the Bears danced boisterously in their locker room after each of their 12 wins, veered so much away from the established norm of the NFL, I’m still shocked it happened. The obvious promotion of unique personalities and identities like Tarik Cohen, Akiem Hicks, and Anthony Miller was so refreshing because it isn’t something you see as a point of emphasis for the NFL on average. Everywhere you looked, there was an uncommon gusto to the most recent iteration of the Bears and my goodness, was it great to take in.

The 2018 Bears were cocky and good at the same time, and they made sure everyone knew it. That isn’t to say they didn’t have respect for their opponents or lacked humility, but more that they understood how to strike a healthy balance of giving their individual and team accomplishments some pizzazz. Their mandatory football brotherhood and accountability was as strong as their regular outbursts of energy. They had fun in the process of stomping out their competition, and you’ll find it easy to catch that ride.

Football is a game.

Sorry, wait.

Football is a game.

Wait, did I type that right?

Football is a game.

Okay, there I got it.

Football is a game and it should be treated as such. A promotion of identity to let the many burgeoning personalities lying in wait show out wouldn’t be the worst thing. A collective emphasis on team and fun at the same time should be welcomed.

Football is a team game. At its highest level in the NFL, that doesn’t mean it has to be so boring, too.

Robert is the Editor-in-chief of The Blitz Network (subscribe here!), the managing editor of Windy City Gridiron, and writes for a host of other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.