Defense, social media overbearing

How the rise of social media has changed NFL.

Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.

By the halfway point of any NFL season, a dominant theme or narrative usually presents itself. It might be as obvious as the Patriots’ total dominance in 2007, or as fleeting as the rise of the Wildcat offense in 2008.

This season is no different, and as I look back at the first half of 2012, a few themes emerge. One that is the most obvious this year has occurred off the field: it involves the confluence between the immense amount of interest in the game, and the explosion of media outlets (social and otherwise) focused on football. We’ve seen the explosion of new media in all walks of life, of course, but this is felt as acutely in the world of sports as anywhere. In short, the popularity of the National Football League is such that any story that is covered will be, almost by definition, over-covered.

Twenty-five years ago, you’d play a game on Sunday, listen to a postgame radio show, read about it the next day in the papers, and then get ready for the next week’s game. The media coverage beyond that was sparse — injury updates, a feature on a star player, a few statistical notes. Today, there’s more than that written about and discussed before the game even ends. Then, in the long week between games, all the ancillary forms of media — from blogs to Twitter blasts, wall-to-wall talk radio to 24-hour news networks — are there to slice, dice, dissect and deconstruct every last storyline. In sum, this is great: more football coverage for all of us who love football.

But because of this incessant coverage of the game and the voracious media beast that has to be fed, an obsessive myopia takes over, in which every single development is blown out of proportion. A week into the season, we were reading stories about the maturation of Tony Romo (who’d led the Cowboys to a road win over the Giants) and Cam Newton (who’d helped the Panthers stun the Saints). A month later, both quarterbacks were the focal points of the chorus of criticism of their respective teams.

Three weeks into the season, the Eagles were the cool veteran team that had won despite subpar performances. A month later, a large portion of pundits held the opinion that Nick Foles, a third-round draft choice who’d yet to take an NFL snap, ought to replace Michael Vick as quarterback of the Eagles. (As we saw Monday night at New Orleans, any quarterback in the league would get eaten alive behind the inept Eagles’ offensive line.)

In late September, the Broncos were a flawed team and Peyton Manning was an aging quarterback well past his prime. In November, the Broncos are some people’s choice to get the top seed in the AFC and Manning is getting MVP mentions.

The conventional wisdom over whether Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck is the better rookie quarterback has changed three or four times since Kickoff Weekend.

If this was just people talking, it wouldn’t make much difference. But the media narratives affect the teams and players and have to be contended with. Romo has become a flashpoint in Dallas; Newton has had to answer questions not only about his play on the field but also his demeanor in press briefings. And you can bet that Michael Vick will be facing questions all week about the tweets his brother Marcus sent out during the Eagles’ Monday night loss to New Orleans (which Marcus Vick has already had to officially apologize for). The New York Jets have had plenty of problems this season, but the three-ring media circus accompanying the most celebrated back-up quarterback in America, Tim Tebow, has definitely been one of them.

Many teams have tried to limit the social media of their players, keeping players from tweeting their injury status. The NFL prohibits players from tweeting 90 minute prior to the game. But I believe that, going forward, teams are going to have to be far more savvy in how to manage and respond to social media. Silencing players isn’t a solution; making them more sophisticated about the implications of their Twitter timelines and Facebook updates is.

Beyond the sound and fury of the modern media echo chamber, what have we truly learned this season about the game on the field? One thing is clear: Even in this age of 400-yard passing games, defenses still matter. Offenses always get most of the attention, and the competition committee makes sure they enjoy lots of built-in advantages, but even in an era where some quarterbacks are completing more than two-thirds of their passes, there are plenty of defenses that can often dictate the tempo of a game.

The Chicago Bears have taken the idea of turnovers to a whole new level. Led by Charles Tillman, the Bears are on pace to shatter the all-time record for scores off of takeways. The record of nine scores in a season is held by the 1961 San Diego Chargers. The Bears are currently at seven after just eight games. Once, when you played a defense like the Bears, you would make not turning over the ball your top priority. Now, you almost have to concede that they will get a takeaway; the new goal is to just not let them score with it.

Of the current teams that could make the playoffs several of them — Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Minnesota, Seattle — are there primarily because of their defense. Conversely, there are some teams — the Packers, Broncos and Patriots — who will be in the playoff hunt primarily because of their explosive offenses.

The most balanced teams can control games on both sides of the ball, winning shootouts and stalemates alike. These teams — like the Texans, Giants and Falcons (and the Ravens, before their defense was decimated by injuries) — have the brightest future. Those are the teams that have the best chance to be playing football well into January.

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