In the NFL, there is only the illusion of change
The more things change, as the cliché goes, the more things stay the same. The problem is when that sameness is mistaken for progress.
Talk of progress, of change, is in vogue in the NFL these days. The league is looking to warm its lingering reputation as an immovable iceberg employing borderline sociopaths. You can almost play Mad Libs with the phrases the league uses in response to negative press. “We’re [taking steps] toward [looking into ways] in which [we can better understand the issue] [going forward] [to improve our relationship] [for a better tomorrow]” might be a winner in a random NFL explanation generator.
But the NFL makes continuously clear that there is no better tomorrow. Not in regards to any humanity left in the league, at least.
During the team’s bye week, the Chicago Bears released defensive lineman Jeremiah Ratliff. While fans and media were piecing details together as to why a team would rid itself of a talented starter, seemingly out of nowhere, recently reinstated Greg Hardy of the Dallas Cowboys took over the headlines again with his in-game display of petulance during Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants. Then a character from HBO’s Hard Knocks, Ryan Mallett, was cut by the Houston Texans for continuing to be the idiot character Ryan Mallett from Hard Knocks.
So the Ratiliff move flew a bit under the radar nationally, partly also because the Bears aren’t exactly one of the league’s sexier teams right now. While recent years in Chicago have been a (tragi)comedy, the Ratliff story isn’t funny, both when examining what few details there are, and seeing it as a cell in a bigger mosaic of icky.
What we do know is that on Wednesday of last week, Ratliff supposedly showed up to Halas Hall, the Bears practice facility, in no condition to work. When he was told by Bears staff — including first-year general manager Ryan Pace — to leave, Ratliff became angry and had a heated exchange with Pace. That caused the team to have security escort Ratliff off the premises, as well as to call the Lake Forest, Ill., police to monitor the situation and to be watchful of Ratliff trying to return to the facility. Ratliff was cut shortly thereafter, with Pace only saying in a statement:
“We felt moving forward without Jeremiah was in the best interest of our team. We appreciate his contributions and wish him well. We are also excited to be able to add Ziggy Hood to our roster.”
An ugly incident for sure, but on the surface, Ratliff — despite being a four-time Pro Bowl defender and capable starter on a team with several glaring holes — happens to be 34, and his (now former) team isn’t all that good and is rebuilding. Insubordination leading to a dismissal shouldn’t be that surprising.
The reflexive response in Chicago is to chalk the roster move up to another example of recent culture change. Progress after an era of darkness.
The hiring of Pace and new head coach John Fox marked a shift from their respective predecessors, Phil Emery and Marc Trestman, who were seen at the end of their tenures to operate somewhere between incompetence and spinelessness. Active players didn’t respect Trestman. Former players like Brian Urlacher didn’t attempt to hide a contempt for Emery. With Pace and Fox, things would be different, and jettisoning a hot-tempered but valuable player like Ratliff showed that. Clap it up for the Bears, right?
This week, the Ratliff story took a twist when details emerged of a similar incident with him last year. Via Mike Freeman:
“In the last week of the season, on a Friday, according to a player who witnessed the entire incident, Ratliff showed up to practice and was behaving belligerently toward players and coaches. The coaching regime, then led by Marc Trestman, would not allow him to practice.
“Ratliff went ballistic, this player said, and was asked to leave practice. He departed but later returned. Practice was stopped and most players went off to the side while a small group of players and coaches tried to calm Ratliff down and get him to leave.
“It didn’t work initially. Ratliff destroyed the game clock on the practice field, smashing it and kicking it. Later, he shoved an assistant coach to the ground. While all of this went on, Trestman never intervened. He just stood off to the side and watched.
“And this is the most incredible part. The uber-enabling part. Not only was Ratliff never punished by Trestman … but also he was named one of the captains the next day. The entire locker room was incredulous.
“Trestman justified making Ratliff a captain by saying he brought intensity, but no player bought that. That move, the player said, led to Trestman officially losing the locker room. Trestman was fired soon after.”
During the regime change in Chicago, Ratliff was kept around. This despite the team knowing he would have to serve a three-game suspension to start the year for a 2013 DUI. And, of course, knowing his previous history of destroying team property and shoving a coach.
Though the regime changed, a certain presence stayed the same.
Shortly after taking the Bears job, Fox singled out two defensive players on which to build. One was 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller, and the other was Ratliff. In August, during training camp, Ratliff was involved in a skirmish with center Will Montgomery that was so intense that it took several players and staff much effort to stop it. Said Fox afterward, “We’ve still got a lot of work to do to find out who the tough guys are. The only way to find out is practices like that.”
Now the tough guy is gone, having scared enough people that they felt extra security was needed after he left for fear of something worse than what happened in December.
To Fox, “Every situation is individually different. Like all our personnel decisions, regardless of who or whose name’s on it, it’s what we feel is best for the football team. And his was no different.
“Anybody that doesn’t really meet our expectations and we think will help us moving forward, I think we’re disappointed in, really, anybody that we have to release and move on from.”
Nothing to see here. Keep moving, because we as an organization are certainly moving on. Progressing, if you will.
This is the same organization, mind you, whose current personnel decision-makers thought bringing in Ray McDonald was a good idea. That almost immediately blew up in their faces, and was compounded by team chairman George McCaskey questioning the credibility of abused women and vouching for McDonald, because the player’s parents spoke well of their son. Two months later, egg-faced McCaskey was all mea culpa and vowed better decision-making.
It was a change, if you will. Yet the Bears aren’t far from the same as they were, despite the applause they’re getting for canning a talented player.
This all underscores the Hardy situation, if we are to come full circle. He’s also on a 2–4 team like the Bears and one that doesn’t have a viable quarterback until at least Week 11. He got physical with a coach on national television. His past domestic violence issues have been understated by his organization. He still has a job.
Besides suiting up this coming Sunday, Hardy is different from Ratliff in that the former is the current posterchild for the league’s domestic violence problem and generally crappy attitude toward the worth of women.
Ratliff is gone for allegedly showing up to work under the influence of something and instilling a fear of violent repercussions for disciplining him. Mallett was tossed aside because alarm clocks and people pointing out that he follows a Duck Dynasty parody Twitter account are beneath him.
Guys are no longer given carte blanche to act like jerks, right? Accountability, see? Yes, when it comes to football operations. Hardy hasn’t compromised that in Dallas yet, though. Or at least not to where it outweighs his usefulness. Jerry Jones continued his toxic talk about Hardy, praising the player after the incident on Sunday, to which the collective reaction to his reaction was summed up quite appropriately by The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas:
That Jones values Hardy as cyborg football player over menace to society (and maybe his coaches and teammates), just as former Cowboy Michael Irvin does, is an honesty not so much refreshing as it is a noxious byproduct reality. Like opening the lid on a dumpster behind a seafood restaurant in July.
This is the NFL, and the NFL will always remind you of just how stagnant and unchangeable this deal with the devil for exciting football really is. In the same vein, if the league can make money off of it while passing it off as charity or some other form of pathos, super duper. If it makes for a heartwrenching domestic violence PSA, hey, now that’s some progress. See? The league loves women and hates diseases, just like the rest of us normal people.
Until an individual’s love of women or hatred of a disease is an unprofitable uniform violation, that is.
Things always stay the same with this cold, cruel iceberg that is the NFL. There is only the illusion of change.