Through nonstop NFL coverage, one thing gets lost: Just because it makes a good headline doesn't mean it deserves one
A former NFL general manager I know was fond of referring to those rumor-filled weeks leading up to the NFL draft as the league’s "silly season," because so much of what was said and heard during that time of year lacked logic, significance or relation to reality.
It was a wonderfully apt description, but it’s woefully outdated now because it doesn’t extend nearly far enough. I’ve come to realize silly season has morphed into football season, and as the NFL Network is always quick to remind us, football season never ends.
Does anyone out there have the same thought—that the silliness of some of what passes for important NFL coverage these days has never been, well, sillier? As in devoid of meaning or significance?
When Colin Kaepernick dons a Dolphins cap and it sparks a week-long story and expressions of outrage, we have definitely lost perspective. When Robert Griffin III’s choice of wedding gift registry turns into a nationwide communal experience of giving, there’s a slippery little line that has been crossed. And when every argument that’s captured on an NFL sideline inspires something just short of hostage-crisis coverage (yes, we saw that, Justin Blackmon), maybe we should start paying a little more attention to what transpires on the field.
All of this was brought home to me again in a quirky little twist last week, when new Vikings receiver Greg Jennings launched another broadside blast in the direction of the Green Bay Packers, his former team. Jennings was quoted talking about how the Packers "brainwashed" players when he played in Titletown.
It sounded like Manchurian Candidate meets the NFL, but that’s where things got silly on us, in a league that inspires such saturation coverage that every practice snap and every syllable someone utters is dissected for meaning and significance.
In an interview with the Twin Cities’ KFAN radio, Jennings was asked what his perception of the Vikings was while he played for the Packers from 2006 to 2012. A legitimate question to be sure. Jennings responded by saying: "One of the things that drew me to coming [to the Vikings] was the makeup of the team. When I came over here, I was kind of brainwashed. There’s no ‘kind of’ to it. Being over in Green Bay, you’re brainwashed to think anyone in the division is tiers below.
"It’s like everything that you know in Green Bay is like the best, the best, the best, the best, the best. And it’s like total brainwashing. And I think you don’t open your eyes to see what other teams have to offer unless you are in that position, and I was afforded this position."
That all sounded pretty familiar to me, because in a one-on-one interview with Jennings the previous week, during my stop in Vikings training camp in Mankato, I asked Jennings roughly the same question, and he gave me roughly the same answer. I had planned on using those quotes in a feature story later this month about Jennings being Minnesota’s centerpiece offseason acquisition. But little did I know I was sitting on a gold mine of headline material, having clearly missed the message of mind-altering practices he was trying to expose. Now I know why Packers general manager Ted Thompson talks so softly and deliberately. It’s some sort of low-level incantation he uses to bend the players to his will. How could have I been so blind and lacking in news sense?
I had asked Jennings, "Now that you’re a Viking, have you found the situation here to be roughly what you thought it was from the outside looking in?"
He replied: "From the outside looking in, I thought everything over here was taking a step back. When you’re over in Green Bay, you’re brainwashed to a certain degree. Don’t get me wrong, things over there are good. But it’s like all you know, so you look at everything else outside of that and say, ‘Oh, they’re sub-par, they’re sub-par.’ "
In essence, what he said and what I heard was: When I was a Packer, we thought we were the elite, probably because we usually had the best quarterback in the division, went to the playoffs five times in my seven seasons, and won three division titles and a Super Bowl. The only other Super Bowl title the entire NFC North owns belongs to the ’85 Bears, so we saw ourselves as the class of the division and developed a superiority complex. In the smallish-town atmosphere of Green Bay, where the hero-worship quotient tends to be high, that belief gets re-enforced by the surroundings.
Once in Minnesota, Jennings decided the Vikings are a first-class organization, too, and he said as much, which was a wise move given Minnesota just paid him a boatload of money to wear purple. Jennings unsurprisingly discovered Green Bay didn’t have a monopoly on how to do things in the NFL after all.
Not really bombshell stuff, but then it’s so much easier and juicier to just seize on the word "brainwashed" and run with it, because, hey, Jennings said it and it looks pretty darn sexy in a headline. Who cares about context and nuance? Providing those just slow down the 24/7 news cycle.
To be clear, I’m not interested in defending Jennings. He’s done plenty of self-inflicted damage in recent weeks with his petty-sounding criticism of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and even with his insincere apology, which I’ve written about. The more he talks about the Packers, the worse he makes things for himself, and his "brainwashing" claim was no doubt bigger news because it looked like just the latest chapter in his Packers bashing.
But in reality, Jennings wasn’t criticizing Green Bay as much as he was trying to compliment the Vikings, and in the context of our interview, that part of his answer made sense to me. The Packers were the elite team in the NFC North during Jennings’ tenure, and with Green Bay’s franchise history and legacy perhaps being unrivaled in the NFL, there must have been an air of superiority attached to the Packers. Jennings was saying when that’s the only way you know, that’s the only way you know. Until you join another team and find out otherwise.
I clearly missed the sizzle factor in Jennings’ quote, but that’s because there really wasn’t any. He tossed out a loaded word but his point was mostly benign—as are a fair amount of the stories churned up in the micro-coverage of the NFL. The trash-talk Twitter wars between players. The melodrama of whether rookie Geno Smith will or won’t attend Mark Sanchez‘ Jets West camp and what it all means for their quarterback competition. The small forest of trees killed in covering the weeks-long Victor Cruz contract stalemate with the Giants, when there was virtually no chance he’d fail to strike a deal with the team in time for training camp. Anything remotely having to do with Tim Tebow, on or off the field.
There is no shortage of worthwhile topics unfolding all the time in the NFL, and the twists, turns and developments of 32 franchises and the league in general are seemingly endless. But coverage of the trivial also has become rather ubiquitous for a league that seems to never stop making news. I have to write about some of the fluff sometimes, but I don’t have to like it, or pretend it really matters. My simple rule? If everything is significant, then nothing is.