It’s been one of the most eventful weeks in the recent history of the NFL, and not just because of the tense football we saw in the conference championships. The greatest player in the history of the sport announced his retirement, a former coach made serious allegations about the league’s competitive integrity and racial inequalities, and we got a new team name in the nation’s capital. In case you’ve been too busy studying for midterms, here’s a rundown on the wild week in the NFL.
The GOAT Hangs Up His Cleats
After 22 legendary seasons in the NFL and 7 championships, Tom Brady has finally, and mercifully for the rest of the league, retired from football. As someone born after Brady was drafted, it’s certainly going to be bizarre to see a league without him. The 44-year-old from San Mateo pushed the limits of every part of the game, setting career records for passing yards, touchdowns, and overall wins, and obliterating any measure of playoff success.
But perhaps what’s most impressive is that he has completely silenced the question of who the greatest NFL player of all time is, a feat matched perhaps only by Wayne Gretzky in North American sports. When I first started watching football just over a decade ago, the debate was Brady versus Peyton Manning. Then it became Brady versus Joe Montana and Jerry Rice for the title of greatest of all time. By the time Brady came back from a 28–3 deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, it wasn’t even a question anymore, and it can’t be overstated just how difficult it is to silence the critics like that.
Not only was Brady the greatest quarterback of all time, but he was still one of the best in the league — Brady will likely be the runner-up for MVP this season (personally, he has my vote for No. 1), he led the league in yards and TD’s, and he brought his Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to tie last week’s divisional playoff game from a 27–3 deficit before a last-minute field goal won it for the Rams. Brady was by no means forced into retirement, and that will make his longevity even more legendary; he played until he was 44, and he wasn’t even done yet.
Last week, sportswriter Mina Kimes said that Brady’s defining trait was the inevitability of his success. Even when he was down by 25 points against the Falcons or 24 against the Rams, in the back of your mind, you still believed he was going to win — even when he didn’t. His greatness and penchant for comebacks was such that you could never, ever count out Touchdown Tom. Hell, even after Adam Schefter reported Brady’s retirement, it looked for a hot minute like Brady would come back from that too. For the first time in 22 years, Tom Brady isn’t going to be an NFL player. It’s going to be weird.
Brian Flores Sues the NFL
This week also saw a major set of allegations about the league’s hiring practices put forth in a lawsuit by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. The 58-page suit alleges, in short, two main points.
First, the suit argues that the league’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority head coach and front office hires in an effort to balance existing disparities, causes teams to interview black coaches without ever really intending to hire them. Flores’ evidence for this claim comes from the fact that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, in a pretty comical mistake, accidentally texted Flores congratulating him on landing the New York Giants’ head coach position three days before he even interviewed for that job. But Belichick had instead intended to text Brian Daboll (he got the wrong Brian), and Flores’ suit alleges that this indicates that the Giants had already settled on Daboll, and were therefore only interviewing Flores to comply with the Rooney Rule, undermining the entire point of the system.
Second, the suit claims that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered Flores $100,000 per game to lose and earn a higher draft pick in the 2019 season. In addition, Ross apparently sought to get Flores to skirt the league’s tampering rules and meet secretly with an unnamed quarterback on Ross’ yacht, and Flores’ refusal was apparently a factor in his ultimate dismissal, despite the fact that Flores had been widely lauded for leading the team to winning records and the edge of the playoffs for two straight seasons.
These allegations, especially those about Ross, are serious, and get to the core of the NFL’s competitive integrity. If a team owner is trying to coerce his coach to throw games — and Flores has gone on to allege that other coaches have been offered similar bribes — fans could be forgiven for having less investment in the product on-field. If Ross truly did offer these bribes, nothing short of his expulsion from the league would be enough.
But as for the revelations about the perverse effects of the Rooney Rule on black coaches, it’s a much more complicated question. Flores is right that it’s demoralizing and embarrassing to have to interview for a job you know you won’t get. But that seems like a natural downstream effect of a rule that incentivizes teams to interview minority hires, but not actually hire them. That’s not to say that a racial hiring quota would be better, but rather that there isn’t a single, elegant top-down solution to coaching disparities. At the very least, Flores deserves the due diligence and respect owed to him as a winning football coach, a basic dignity denied to him by teams like the Giants and Denver Broncos who allegedly didn’t even consider him as a potential hire during his interviews.
The Washington Commanders
Another bombshell dropped this week as we learned that the Washington Football Team — sorry, the Washington football team — will henceforth be known as the Washington Commanders. It’s certainly an underwhelming name, but hey, it’s an underwhelming team. (And if that feels like a low blow, the team’s on-field performance is probably the least bad thing about them.) First of all, the change comes two seasons after the temporary Washington Football Team moniker was put into place — long enough to build up unrealistic expectations and for fans to get attached to the brusque authenticity of the WFT name. What can I say? The idea of a team called “the Washington Football Team” was growing on me.
But as for the team’s actual name change, it was somewhat hampered by a perceived need to attach the team to the federal government or military, when Washington, D.C. is an actual city with residents, history, and traditions that a name could be drawn from. That’s not to mention the team’s historical association with hogs, drawing from a nickname for the team’s bruising offensive line in the 1980s that won the franchise’s 3 Super Bowls, or red wolves, a critically endangered species of wolf native to the southeastern U.S. With so many options and time to pick between them, the team ultimately settled on possibly the most milquetoast choice, one that doesn’t even come with an actual logo.
Still, the Commanders’ name, like all others, will probably feel more normal over time — anyway, the franchise has much deeper issues than their lack of a name. If you’re not already aware, the team is facing numerous allegations and lawsuits pertaining to sexual harassment, intimidation, and an overall awful workplace culture at the franchise, especially for women. Things are coming to a head on that front, as the NFL’s internal investigation is looking increasingly like a cover-your-butt operation and as Congress is increasingly interested in getting involved with the investigation. For all of us fans unimpressed with the name change, we’ll hopefully be lucky enough to see a team owner change in the near future.
Super Bowl LVI
Oh, right — there’s a game next weekend. I’m no expert football analyst, so I don’t think I could reasonably pick a team confidently, but I’m excited to see a Super Bowl with two teams that didn’t at all feel like sure things going into the season. The Bengals were just 10–7 this season, but off the red-hot arm of Joe Burrow and leg of Evan McPherson, they have taken down the Raiders, Titans, and Chiefs to put Cincinnati one game from their first ever Super Bowl title. All this from a team that won just two and four games their last two seasons.
But the Bengals’ porous offensive line will have its work cut out for them against Aaron Donald and Von Miller. On the other side of the ball, Cooper Kupp has had one of the greatest wide receiver seasons of all time, and if Matt Stafford can keep the errors to the minimum and find Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr., they could slice up this Bengals defense.
So just based on talent, I’d have to say the Rams are the favorites, but I’ve underestimated the Bengals against both of their previous two opponents, and here they are in the Big Game. Nevertheless, I’ll be rooting for the Bengals to bring Cincinnati back their first NFL title. (Not least because the Rams came back to defeat my 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Totally not still bitter about that.)
Images courtesy of Jeffrey Beall, Washington Commanders