Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tuesday Morning Quarterback

Gregg Easterbrook writes a column for called Tuesday Morning Quarterback, shockingly enough about professional football. It's entertaining, and I read it every week, largely because Easterbrook doesn't recycle vapid conventional wisdom like most sports columnists do, nor does he descend into mindless fandom like even the best columnists are prone to do on occasion. For example, consider the Green Bay-Denver game this past Monday night. Brett Favre is Green Bay's quarterback, and just about everybody who likes football likes him. He's won a Super Bowl with Green Bay and been the MVP of the NFL three times. Over the past few years, his skills have appeared to deteriorate, leading many commentators to conclude that he should retire. This season, however, has been very different. The old Favre is back, and he has performed very well in leading his team to a 6-1 start. On Monday night, he threw for 331 yards and two touchdowns, one a 79 yarder to James Jones in the first quarter, the other a beautiful 82 yard bomb to Greg Jennings on the first snap of overtime to win the game. Compare what Easterbrook wrote about Favre in this game to what Peter King, a usually-excellent columnist for Sports Illustrated, wrote. First King:
Brett Favre, 38 but playing like 24, faded back to pass for the 14th time since the half. For the 13th time he completed the pass, according to Sims, a high-arching spiral to Greg Jennings down the sideline, caught in perfect stride at the Denver 40 over Broncos corner Dre Bly. He jogged in for the winning touchdown...

Is Brett Favre ever going to age? Let's just look at his stat line. He's second in the NFL -- even with a bye week -- with 2,046 passing yards, second only to Tom Brady's 2,431. Favre has completed 66 percent of his passes, nearly a percentage point better than Peyton Manning. His touchdown-to-interception differential is +5, the same as Carson Palmer's. And his rating, 92.5, is in line with the best of his career.

Now Easterbrook:

Brett Favre's 82-yard game-winning touchdown pass on the first snap of overtime was an example of the fine line between a great play and a bonehead play. Favre heave-hoed toward a guy who was covered pretty well, and the football gods, still smarting about the cheerleaders, smiled on the visiting team. J.P. Losman's late 85-yard game-icing touchdown Sunday at Jersey/B was another example: a deep heave-ho to a guy who was double-covered in that case. Both passes, as they left the quarterback's hands, were as likely to be disastrous interceptions as highlight-reel touchdowns.
Yes, it's more fun to think of Favre in the terms that King writes about him; but Easterbrook is right. Favre just threw that last touchdown up for grabs (he did on the first touchdown, too), and he got lucky. It worked out for him, but he could easily have had two interceptions instead of two touchdowns.

So I have a great deal of respect for Easterbrook. Unfortunately, he is occasionally wrong. And he's wrong in this week's column. His subject is the fight between the NFL and some cable companies about the NFL Network. The NFL started the NFL Network a couple of years ago, and the only thing on it that anyone would actually want to watch are the 8 Thursday night games in the second half of the season that the network broadcasts. The NFL wants cable companies to carry the NFL Network in their basic packages, and they charge the cable companies between $7 and $9 a month to carry it. Some cable companies, realizing the limited and seasonal appeal of NFL Network, balk at those charges, which are significantly more than what CNN charges; and they refuse to carry NFL Network except in premium packages. The NFL is upset by this and has threatened to lobby Congress to pass a law mandating that NFL Network be carried on basic cable. Easterbrook, justifiably, thinks that this is ridiculous. If he had ended with criticizing the league for their obtuseness and their begging for corporate welfare, it would have been a great column. But he segued into NFL Sunday Ticket, the package on DirecTV that allows a subscriber to view any NFL game. Since its inception, Sunday Ticket has been offered exclusively through DirecTV for a variety of reasons (the NFL wants to keep the networks that broadcast its games happy by limiting the reach of Sunday Ticket, cable companies have been unwilling to shell out money to bid on it unless they can fill timeouts with local advertising, etc.), and Easterbrook thinks that the situation is absurd, particularly because there are millions of people who don't have access to DirecTV for technological reasons and because any cable subscriber in countries other than the US can watch any NFL game while US cable subscribers can't. All well and good: I will agree with Easterbrook that I wish Sunday Ticket weren't so tightly-restricted or expensive. But the games belong to the NFL, and they can distribute them anyway that they wish, even if the ways that they wish aren't in my best interest. This is entertainment, not drinking water after a hurricane hits. But that's not what Easterbrook thinks:

The National Football League must find a way to offer anyone the chance to buy Sunday Ticket. If the league does not, Congress ought to follow the NFL's advice and intervene. Members of Congress ought to pressure the NFL to stop offering Sunday Ticket to the entire populations of Canada and Bulgaria but restricting access here. This sounds like a nice populist cause for the right senator or representative.

This is not a legitimate area for Congressional interference. People don't have a right to watch whatever football games they want. A Congressional mandate about how the NFL can distribute its games interferes with the NFL's property rights, and it's not right. Not being able to get what you want ought not to be a Federal case. Easterbrook needs to grow up.

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