Monday, November 28, 2005

Revisionist history

I'll bring Martin Grammatica and Keyshawn Johnson back into the Boardroom.

When football is on the television, the network has guys who talk about the game while the men in the helmets scamper about playing it. As I understand it, the idea behind this arrangement is that viewers will learn something because these talky-talky guys are knowledgeable about the game. In practice, however, the effectiveness of the setup varies with the announcing team. When Moose Johnston or Steve Tasker is speaking, I often hear something I didn't know. When Joe Theismann or Randy Cross is speaking, I hear only high-volume blah-blah-blah. And when Bill Maas is speaking, I don't just wonder whether he's watching the same game I am; I wonder whether he's watching the same sport. (Sunday, Maas was belaboring a point about good defensive linemen keeping their "toes" pointed straight up when they're in their stance. Think about the mechanics of that. Toes, toes, toes, he said. Then he showed a still shot and circled a player's heel and said, "See these toes pointed straight up?")

Regardless, you do expect a commentator to say things that make sense, even if they're blatantly obvious (everything Theismann says) or if you have to work a little to decipher what he's trying to say (Maas). And you don't expect him to parrot a line of nonsense that many fans at home know is nonsense. Like what Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden has been peddling in production meetings. Twice in the past couple of weeks, I've heard network announcers describe Gruden discussing the "tuck rule" in those meetings.

Gruden was the Raiders' head coach when they lost to the Patriots in the playoffs after the 2001 season. That was the game, played in a blizzard, in which an apparent game-deciding fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was reversed after a replay review. The official ruled that Brady lost the ball while bringing it down to "tuck" it after a pump-fake, which means he was in a passing action, which means the "fumble" was an incomplete pass. The Patriots retained possession, scored to tie the game and won in overtime. That game was Gruden's last as coach of the Raiders. Within two months the Buccaneers signed him away, even though he had a year left on his contract with Oakland. As compensation, the Bucs had to give the Raiders two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and $8 million in cash.

With that history in mind, imagine how annoying it was to hear Fox broadcasters -- not once, but twice -- repeat without question Gruden's assertion that he had been "fired" in Oakland and had to "move across the country" because of the tuck rule.

Gruden had been at loggerheads with Raiders owner Al Davis long before that day in the New England snow. It was clear Gruden wanted out of Oakland, and it was clear that Davis wouldn't mind seeing him go, provided another team would pay Davis' price. The Bucs, who had fired Tony Dungy and been left at the altar by Bill Parcells, were that team. Gruden went to Florida and promptly took the Bucs to the Super Bowl. Gruden gained a certain measure of revenge by beating the Raiders in that Super Bowl. Yet for whatever reason, that story isn't good enough, so Gruden spins this yarn about being fired because of the tuck rule, and the Fox broadcasters wrap that yarn around their own necks and tempt me to strangle them with it.

Davis may have had plans to fire Gruden, may have wanted to fire him, may have dreamed about it, but he never actually did fire him. Even if Davis had canned him, it wouldn't have been over the playoff loss. It wouldn't have been over the tuck rule. Gruden chose to pack up his family and move them across the country, and the Buccaneers had to pay a fat price for the privilege of having him.

Gruden is a smart fellow. I'm willing to at least consider the possibility that he was kidding (or testing) the Fox crews in the production meetings when he said he was fired. Yet the announcers repeated it uncritically and unquestioningly. It's clear that even if Gruden were kidding, these guys didn't catch on. They were fuzzy about the details of the biggest story in the NFL just three and a half years ago. I can't picture any network's A team serving up this regurgitated hash, but the G team plated it right up. If Gruden can tell that story with a straight face, he ought to go into politics. On second thought, maybe he shouldn't! Ar ar.

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