Most of what happens on a football field isn't very nice. If it occurred in your workplace or mine, the perpetrator(s) would probably be whisked off to sensitivity training. But sometimes it takes a game like Sunday's between the Washington Redskins and St. Louis Rams to remind us of that.
Here was the NFL in all its atavistic glory, with push coming to shove, tit coming to tat and, as the afternoon progressed, huddles looking more and more like angry mobs. As Mike Shanahan put it after the Rams won a unanimous 31-28 decision, "Everybody's going to be physical. This is the NFL. But this went to another level. Not something you're very proud of."
He can say that again. There was so much trash talking, finger pointing, facemask tugging and late hitting — among other unpleasantries — that the action teetered on the edge of professional wrestling at times. About the only thing we didn't have was one player accusing another of using a Foreign Object. Nerves were rubbed so raw by the end that Joshua Morgan ridiculously overreacted to a veritable love tap from St. Louis' Cortland Finnegan, costing the Redskins 15 yards and killing any realistic chance they had of sending the game into overtime.
Which might have been just as well, considering the intensity of the hostilities.
Several factors contributed to this contentiousness. One was that it was Jeff Fisher's first home game as the Rams' coach, and his players were eager to show the fans they were mad as heck and weren't going to take it anymore. By "it," I'm referring to St. Louis' recent 2-14 (2011), 1-15 ('09) and 2-14 ('08) seasons. Fisher, of course, is a disciple of Buddy Ryan, and we all remember how the Body Bag Boys (a.k.a. the 1986 to '90 Philadelphia Eagles) played the game — with malice aforethought. His Tennessee teams flew around the field with the same abandon (though maybe not as much malevolence).
There's also the feeling, though, that the Rams were trying to take advantage of the replacement officials, who, because of their interim status, might not be as willing to assert their authority as the Regular Guys are. That certainly seemed to be the case Sunday. Referee Wayne Elliott didn't seem too eager to expel any of the miscreants, and even major penalties were overlooked on occasion. This just emboldened the home club to keep pushing the envelope, and pretty soon you had a game that Morgan could only compare to "a boxing match" — minus the 10-ounce gloves. (Not that the Redskins didn't return fire once in a while.)
Welcome to the National Football League. If there's an edge to be gained, large or small, rest assured somebody will attempt to exploit it. Replacement refs are doing the game? Swell. Let's see how much we can get away with. If our strategy doesn't work and we end up losing, we can just blame the refs for not knowing what to let go.
St. Louis apparently wasn't the only team in Week 2 thinking along these lines. A similar game took place in Philadelphia, with the Eagles and Ravens running slightly amok. "They play dirty," Baltimore's Vontae Leach said afterward. "They take shots after the play, a lot of dirty stuff after plays. We weren't going to back down."
And when you don't back down, you usually get your back up. That's where the trouble can start — and where players can temporarily take leave of their senses, as Morgan did.
But there's another way to look at this. Indeed, it can almost be seen, from the Redskins' perspective, as a compliment. For years, after all, there's been the suspicion that opponents didn't bring their 'A' game when they faced Washington, didn't feel like they needed their Full Fury. But the Redskins have a quarterback now, and they were so impressive in their opener at New Orleans that the Rams had to respect them, had to wake up Sunday on the wrong side of 46 beds.
It may not have been pleasing to watch, but for Mike Shanahan's club, it was progress. It was a good learning experience for the Redskins, too. It showed them what the best teams have to put up with week after week in the cutthroat NFL. At some point, let's not forget, they hope to be one of those teams.
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