Somehow a notion still exists that the NFL must be played by gentleman's rules. It's a quaint thought, one long ago discarded in a modern, big money era of sports where offense, winning and fantasy stats sell more than ever. In other words, the Atlanta Falcons got paid well to play Washington Generals to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints late Monday night.
Perhaps if the Falcons had tackled better or not blown as many coverages or had not traded half their draft for a receiver who couldn't hold onto the ball, they wouldn't have been staring at a deficit that seemed as tall as the Superdome roof. But this was not the Saints' problem. And with the nation watching as Drew Brees stood on the doorstep of one of the two most cherished season records in football, what were the Saints to do? Quit playing hard?
Sportsmanship can be measured in lots of ways. We see it often in professional sports. Defensive ends who knock quarterbacks to the ground offer a hand to help them up. Players embrace at the end of games and join in group prayers. Players on opposing teams give subtle slaps on the behind in congratulations of a great play. But sportsmanship has long left the scoreboard. And if the Saints wanted to keep throwing the ball so Brees could break Dan Marino's 27-year-old season yardage record on national television, why shouldn't they?
Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole said sources close to Falcons coach Mike Smith indicated he was unhappy. Several anonymous Falcons players told CBSSports.com they were upset, too. There is a thought around the NFL that the Saints are a cocky team, led by a cocky coach, that plays too aggressively on defense. Perhaps all that is true. Payton has created a giant in New Orleans by carrying a chip on his shoulder and the Saints do hit hard, sometimes late.
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As linebacker Jonathan Vilma said last week: "I'd rather be known as [a dirty defense] than a finesse defense."
This is who the Saints are. Their cuddly story of rebuilding and survival has always obscured the fact that they are a team others don't like. And yet there is nothing in today's football, where points and offense are celebrated, that says a team must stop playing to keep from scoring late in the game. If the Falcons didn't like Brees throwing to break Marino's record they could have stopped New Orleans. Instead, they chose to complain in the locker room.
All this hand-wringing sends a mixed message. We have become a culture obsessed with championships. Players no longer talk about great seasons or the joy of playing with teammates or the legacies they can achieve in their cities. Instead they chase rings. Across the street from the Superdome, the New Orleans Hornets traded their franchise player Chris Paul because he wants to win a title. All the best players are getting theirs. He needs his. Oddly this behavior is accepted. And yet this same society consumed with winning and records says the Saints were supposed to turn off their offense and let Brees pass Marino on another day?
That world is gone. Lament it if you must but teams aren't compelled by some unwritten rule to keep the score down anymore. Has everyone forgotten Bill Belichick's scorched earth march through the NFL post-Spygate in 2007?
[ Photo gallery: Drew Brees' record night ]
Brees is also an unlikely player upon whom to funnel rage. He came to New Orleans when the rest of the NFL decided his 2005 shoulder injury was too severe to take a chance on him. Then as the city picked through Hurricane Katrina's debris and built itself back, he built with them. When some players wrote checks to charity and hoped that was enough, he kept coming back, offering a face as well as a name. If there is anyone who has done things right in the NFL these last few years, it's Brees.
And because of that a nation wanted to see him break Marino's record. By late Monday night no one was watching the Falcons, a team that has teased but not stepped forward in the NFC South. Everyone was watching Brees.
Yes, this was a risk for the Saints and for Payton, who could have inspired a cheap shot from a Falcons player, perhaps dooming New Orleans in the playoffs before they ever started. But that's always the fear anytime a team steps on the field. This is, after all, a game of violence, played by large and angry men.
Not one where you worry about hurt feelings and drying tears over orange slices and a postgame juice box.
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