This weekend, I watched “The Godfather.” I also watched the NFL playoffs. They’re compelling for the same reason.
“The Godfather” is one of the greatest movies ever made, even if it was, perhaps, eclipsed by “Godfather II.”
The NFL has won the fight to become the most popular American sport by knockout.
Juxtaposed, the reasons for the popularity of each become obvious, and similar.
If Francis Ford Coppola had beautifully told the epic story of an Italian immigrant who elevated himself from the mean streets of New York by running a legitimate olive oil business, he could have captured the essence of the American dream, and told the story of a family empire. And he would have sold about eight tickets to see his movie, no matter how well-written, well-acted or creatively shot the film was.
If Pete Rozelle had suggested that flag football would be a more humane format for the NFL, there would have been great quarterbacks throwing to remarkable receivers, and gifted athletes at every position on the field, and the Super Bowl would be played at halftime of the Puppy Bowl, instead of the other way around.
In just two NFL playoff games on Sunday, we saw Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman playing with his left arm clamped to his chest. He might have nerve damage in his elbow. He refused to leave the field. He insisted he will play in the Super Bowl in two weeks.
We saw Seahawks safety Earl Thomas injure his shoulder, leave the field, and come back to play. “They’re gonna have to take more than our arms,” Sherman told Thomas later.
We saw Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the most valuable player in the league, run for a first down while reinjuring his calf. “I needed to push it, and run a little bit, and kind of let it go,” he said.
We saw Patriots receiver Julian Edelman take a hit, retire to the locker room, and return to take more hits and limp off the field again in the fourth quarter.
We saw Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy and LeGarrette Blount invite punishment, revel in punishment. We saw a Colts player leave the field as a sideline reporter mentioned that he was “coughing up blood.”
I’m one of many people in America who want to see football players better protected, who wants their brains and limbs to be intact when they leave the game. “I don’t want to see them take the football out of football,” former Vikings receiver Leo Lewis said recently.
The carnage reminded me of something Mike Grant, Bud’s son and the Eden Prairie football coach, once said: “We love football for the same reasons we love war movies. There’s a sense that not everyone is coming back whole.”
The NFL, unlike “The Godfather,” is remarkably flawed. Every weekend, it reminds of the great George Will description: “Football combines the two worst things about America: It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
The rule book is too long and complex to be comprehended, especially by the part-time officials the league employs. The league has no choice but to try to protect its meal tickets — quarterbacks — from injury, even though doing so creates a caste system shielding only a small percentage of the league’s players from violence. Almost every important play is subject to a lengthy replay.
The lure of this violent, epic game is so visceral that its obvious flaws don’t dampen its popularity.
Observers have come up with dozens of reasons for the popularity of the NFL, and they all contain truth. One game a week allows casual fans to see every minute of their team’s season. Three hours on a weekend or a Monday or Thursday night — that doesn’t ask much of a fan.
Gambling and fantasy football engage millions of people who might not otherwise obsess about the game. There is always hope, in the form of a new coach or quarterback.
True, true, true … but the reason the NFL captivates is the same reason “The Godfather” compels. You not only want to see who triumphs, you want to see who emerges whole.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at souhanunfiltered.com. On