Have you ever gotten a feeling of déjà vu when reading an article about the NFL? That eerie sense that you've read it all before: the story, the theme, and even the quotes? If so, then you have encountered an NFL journalism trope, a stylistic cliché that we writers use as a kind of shorthand to finish stories qui-- … er, provide the most informative, entertaining content possible.
Tropes are necessary: not every game story or scouting report can launch a new literary genre. But some have gotten so stale that even the dog won’t eat them. The Internet has accelerated the aging process for story styles that thrived happily for 50 years, back before the age when a reader in Baltimore could click onto a newspaper in Seattle and read the same story with different names.
In the name of improving the reader experience and making the NFL Internet a better place for everyone, Sports on Earth recommends mandatory retirement for the following five tropes. This is a non-binding resolution, and some of these tropes will never die, but we think you will agree that your RSS feed will be a better, less-cluttered place if they do:
5. Quarterback Is/Is Not “Elite”
The Trope: Take the 32 NFL starting quarterbacks. Eliminate the rookies and anyone with a Super Bowl ring. Toss out the guys who are obviously hanging by a thread, like Mark Sanchez and Matt Cassel. Select one player from the nutrient-rich broth of easy-to-criticize remaining players: Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, or a regional choice like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Freeman. Declare that this player is “an elite quarterback” or “is not an elite quarterback.” Spend 1,200 words defending your easy-to-defend position. Make sure to explain that “it takes an elite quarterback to win in the NFL,” and to mention that Tom Brady and Drew Brees have “special qualities” without explaining what those qualities are.
Why it Never Dies: Nothing gets fans fired up like a quarterback argument. “Cutler is Not Elite” makes a much more clickable headline than “In-Depth Breakdown of the Bears Cover-2 Defense, with Stats” (voice of experience!).
Why it Should Die: Pass-fail, yes-no, smash-‘em-or-trash-‘em arguments rob football of its complex beauty, and dumbed-down arguments crowd out more interesting quarterback stories. It is much more fun and informative to talk about real strengths and weaknesses than to haggle over vague intangibles. And here’s the biggest problem for the fans who must ingest this content: you will spend most of your football life watching non-elite quarterbacks, so the endless non-constructive criticism sends a bad (and inaccurate) message to the 90% of you not rooting for Brady types: “You have no hope and will never experience joy.”
4. Team that Clinched Early Won/Lost Playoff Game Because of Resting Starters
The Trope: This trope’s season is coming soon, Texans and Broncos fans! Identify any teams that have clinched their playoff seeding before Week 16 or Week 17. Determine whether they benched their starters to prevent pre-playoff injuries or not. Declare this the wrong decision, whatever it is. Cherry-pick historic examples of teams that support your assertion: The 1996 Broncos are the go-to example of a team that rested everyone for weeks, then got blown out in the playoffs, even though that's not what happened at all. Say “rusty” a lot about the team that clinched and “momentum” a lot about the teams with 7-7 records that are killing themselves to scrape into the playoffs. Forget everything you wrote the moment the rusty team blows out the momentum team 34-7.
Why it Won’t Die: Teams that have clinched a playoff spot are hard to write about. Terrible teams are firing coaches and changing quarterbacks, mediocre teams are sprinting to the finish, but clinched teams are running off tackle and giving Ryan Mallett a look-see. The imaginary bugbear of Tom Brady seizing up like the Tin Man because he took a week off provides a wisp of manufactured drama.
Why it Must Die: Teams “rest their starters” in a way that accounts for the fear of rust. Players with lingering injuries enjoy a week off, but starters often play the early series of meaningless games so they can get their work in while minimizing injury risks. (John Elway and Terrell Davis both played in the final Broncos regular-season game before the infamous 1996 playoff collapse, for example). And of course, everyone still attends meetings, hits the weight room, watches film and gets a share of the practice reps. The benefits of letting exhausted, banged-up players recuperate outweigh the risks of losing some magical “momentum” so overwhelmingly that it's obvious to anyone who isn’t trying to twist “rusty starters” into a storyline. To pretend otherwise is to drift from “contrary” to “misleading.”
3. New Coach Has More Aggressive System
The Trope: New coach gets hired, holds introductory press conference, and is asked to describe his system. Coaches would rather snuggle a hornet’s nest than give strategic specifics, so the new coach says that he will be “more aggressive” than the previous coach. If the new coach has an offensive background, he may substitute “more balanced” for “more aggressive.” If the story is running at the start of training camp (as opposed to January hiring season), we mix in some quotes from veteran players on how much happier they are with the new, aggressive system, and try as hard as possible to make it sound like the previous coach ordered players to sit around on pillows and talk about their feelings.
Why it Never Dies: We have to write something about the new coach. Trust me, if a new defensive coordinator announced at his first press conference that he planned to blitz on 70 percent of third downs, use the strong safety to cover tight ends as often as possible, and move the top pass rusher from left to right depending on the offensive line he was facing, we would not keep these details to ourselves. But they say “more aggressive” and we have 1,200 words due two hours later.
Why it Should Die: Everyone knows that no coach in history has ever stated that his team would be “more passive” or “less aggressive.” Even terms like “read-and-react,” which were acceptable euphemisms for “I don’t blitz much” about 20 years ago, are stigmatized today. If “more aggressive” is all the coach will give us, let’s go back to the tape or into the stats to find some information that has actual meaning.
2. Young Quarterback Proved He Was a Leader in 13-10 Win
The Trope: Watch inexperienced quarterback lead a team to a 13-10 victory on the strength of two 57-yard field goals and a defensive touchdown. Identify the three otherwise-ordinary plays that could be interpreted as signs that he did something special: Remember that 14-yard scramble, or the five-yard pass on third and 4 in the second quarter? Run through the locker room jamming a recorder in player’s faces and prompting them to talk about the kid’s “leadership” or “competitiveness.” Mine every “he took charge of the huddle” mumble from the recordings. Add coach’s soundbite about the kid “doing everything we asked of him.” Whip up 1,200 words that make a guy who went 11 of 22 for 131 yards and an interception sound like Rommel.
Why it Won’t Die: It takes a killjoy to rain all over an inexperienced quarterback’s parade by writing “he’s barely competent” after a win. Everybody likes to hope that the kid whose longest pass play was a 19-yard screen pass is just a Drew Brees who hasn’t developed yet. Plenty of fans -- and writers and analysts -- subscribe to the theory that if a team won, the quarterback automatically made some significant contribution.
Why it Must Die: The pluck-moxie-gumption school of quarterback evaluation, coupled with the graduate coursework of “Elite-Not-Elite,” is drowning NFL commentary in an ocean of predictable blandness. The sport deserves better, and readers deserve better, than the stale mythmaking and magical thinking that crumbles into a heap of overcooked clichés the moment you start looking closely.
Honorable Mention: When the Running Back Gains 100 Yards, We Win.
If you want to get a math-minded football fan or analyst ticked off, tell him that some team is 35-2 when their running back rushes for over 100 yards. Everyone knows that teams run more often when they have the lead, so the statistic above is exactly backwards: the running back’s yardage is the effect, not the cause. This trope is the speed bag that stat guys pummel when they are trying to make names for themselves as football experts (personal experience!).
But this trope is dying, so there is no need to dwell on it. Awareness of the silliness of this concept has slowly increased over the last 30 years. More importantly, teams don’t run as often when leading as they used to, and committee backfields are limiting the number of 100-yard rushing games, so clean data to support this inverted assertion is harder to find. The slow death of “run to win” is proof that we don’t have to live with these tropes forever.
1. He’s Not the Fastest or Most Athletic, But He’s a Blue Collar Throwback
The Formula: Identify a Caucasian football player. Praise his virtues using the most transparently race-coded language this side of an episode of In the Heat of the Night. Extol his determination and downplay his athleticism so hyperbolically that fans think you are describing a quadriplegic who propels himself on the field using his tongue and tackles opponents by emitting an invisible wave of self-determinism. Bonus points for using the phrase “a football player, not an athlete,” then reacting with actual disbelief when someone calls you racist on the message board.
Why it Won’t Die: Middle-aged white guy wish fulfillment fantasies are so powerful that they make heroin look like mineral water.
Why it Must Die: All NFL players possess amazing talent, and all work incredibly hard. Phrases like “blue-collar throwback” are ugly little euphemisms that should have been crossed off the style sheets in the Kennedy administration.
This last trope has several corollaries, including: 1) Every black quarterback is just like every other black quarterback, and in no way like any white quarterback; 2) Every white wide receiver is Wes Welker; and the dreaded 3) “Mobile quarterback has questionable intelligence, and you all know what I mean by ‘mobile,’ right?”
In addition to being untrue and culturally horrifying, all of these talking points are rote and boring. They are a lie we are sick of telling ourselves, and of all the tropes on this list, they need the biggest wooden stake.