The Take Away: OT, Tebow and the Saints

The hype surrounding Tim Tebow has become as much a part of his persona as his game. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)

With the NFL owners' meetings wrapped up, here are three takeaways on topics around the league, including new overtime rules, the one person who looks good in all the Tim Tebow hype and a key issue in the Saints punishment:

The old OT worked fine
When the playoffs rolled around last season, the NFL sent out a reminder of its postseason overtime format, instituted in 2010 but not tested until the Broncos and Steelers played a Wild Card game in January. Each team gets the ball once. If it’s still tied after that, you keep playing until someone gets the lead. Unless, of course, the first team scores a touchdown on its first try. Then the “each team gets the ball” rule is erased and the game is over.

I’m pretty sure I get it. I’m really sure it’s a downgrade.

That, of course, didn’t stop the league from expanding the rule this week to apply to the entire season, with NFL owners opting for a convoluted system over sudden death, which is simple, exciting, and, despite what many argue, totally fair. First team to score wins, drama, tension and meaning on every play, the game potentially ending at any instant.

Instead, we have a system that requires more bullet points than any sports rule ever should. This isn’t a national health care debate. Simplicity, please.

The argument for the rule change is that it’s unfair to have a game decided on a field goal if one team doesn’t get the ball in overtime. But each team has 60 minutes to beat the other. They have the same opportunities. Can’t get it done? You leave your fate up to some luck.

Besides, despite what some argue, the coin doesn’t decide the winner. Teams don’t Gatorade dunk their coach after correctly calling heads at the start of OT. You have to, you know, actually execute your offense and maybe a field goal while your opponent gets to play defense to try to stay alive. Each side had a chance to make plays. Too weak on defense? Too bad. That’s part of the game.

In the playoffs following the 2009 season, the Cardinals lost the supposedly all-important overtime toss to the Packers. Know what they did? Hit Aaron Rodgers on his first drive, forcing a fumble that they returned for a touchdown and the win. It was dramatic, thrilling and crushing all at the same time.

It’s not that complicated: the old way worked.

The one man who looks good in the Tebow hype
Confession: I watched it.

The most heavily attended press conference ever by a backup quarterback came on ESPN while I was writing Monday and I couldn’t look away. It was like standing in the check out line at Wegmans and trying to ignore the headlines leaping off the celebrity gossip magazines, but being unable to stop myself from learning the latest on Brangelina.

I’d love for ESPN to just give me one 24-hour Tebow break, but the hype is now as much a part of Tebow the player as his game. He got his first chance to prove himself on the field in part because of the immense public pressure from by his fervent followers (and in part because the Broncos really had nothing to lose once Kyle Orton sputtered). That same support, though, probably limited his opportunities once he went on the trading block. Any team taking him on had to know that he would bring along his most rabid fans, who would scream for Tebow to play as soon as the starter faltered. Media questions would soon follow and would confront players and coaches alike. Few wanted that circus.

But as the media and many fans go overboard on Tebow, the quarterback is the one who deals with the effects. Fans tired of hearing about him have responded with a vicious backlash while every legitimate critique of his play brings on the most tired and worthless of rebuttals: hater.

The one person who seems to have kept a level head? Tebow himself.

I wanted to join the backlash, but he handled a barrage of questions with composure, grace and as much honesty as anyone could muster while trying to avoid a hint of controversy. Tebow, as far as I can tell, has never asked for the following or the coverage he generates. He just lives with it.

I’m with those who can’t see Tebow leading a team deep into the playoffs against the high-powered offenses that dominate the league. But for calm and a sense of perspective, Tebow has out-shined many of those who watch and cover him.

The real stakes on bounties
Of the many arguments around the severe punishment facing the Saints and their coaches, this one stuck in my mind. Ryen Russillo, co-host on ESPN Radio’s Scott Van Pelt show, made an offhand comment that it’s not like the Saints were going into the stands and fighting fans.

He was obviously drawing a comparison to the infamous Malice at the Palace, when Indiana Pacers players essentially got into a bar fight with fans in Detroit, only at the arena and on TV. In reality, though, the situations have several important parallels.

The exact actions are obviously different, though both involve excessive violence, but the stakes for the NBA and NFL are similar.

In each case, the primary reasons for the punishments were that they were needed. You can’t punch fans, ever. You can’t have people in authority condoning rewards for injuring opponents. And you can’t lie to the league and keep doing it once they find out.

But the problems for the NBA and NFL went well beyond the specifics of each incident. Each one exposed a fundamental problem the leagues face with their fans, and that added to the reason why each had to be dealt with severely.

The Pacers-Pistons fight wasn’t an endemic issue. No one was going to worry about buying tickets to a basketball game for fear that a brawl would fall in their laps, because everyone knew this was a once-in-a-generation event. But for everyone who criticized the NBA as a thug league with out of control players, here was all the evidence they needed. The NBA had to act to show that it wasn’t the case.

The NFL doesn’t have nearly the same challenge. It dominates the sports world. Everything it touches turns to money. But if there is one potential weakness in its popular appeal, it is the increasing awareness of just how badly NFL players are hurting themselves for our entertainment. It’s not just bad joints they are dealing with. Brain studies and the recent rash of concussion lawsuits show that some of the players we cheer today are very likely taking decades off of their lives because of the brain trauma and resulting behavioral problems.

As that knowledge spreads, it might be the one thing that can eat away at the NFL’s luster. That’s a big part of why the league has put so much public emphasis on its safety initiatives, including pulling out heavy artillery with a slick Super Bowl ad narrated by Ray Lewis. And here came the Saints, with a scandal that played to any critic who finds it hard to fully embrace a violent game whose long-term effects have become increasingly clear.

The NFL had to punish bounties, which go beyond even the sanctioned wreckage the NFL sells. Roger Goodell, as the league’s caretaker, also had to address the image problems the Saints created, and send a clear message about where the league stands.

Yes, the pending lawsuits probably influenced his decision and maybe pushed him to take a tougher stand. But when the lawsuits raise a vital issue, is there anything wrong with that?