D.A.: A Look Back Proves The NFL Has Lost Its Rhythm And Sanity

The NFL has changed a lot since 1989, D.A. writes, and not all of those changes are good

Damon Amendolara
November 15, 2019 - 1:34 pm
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When I found myself watching the fourth-quarter of a relatively anonymous NFL game from 30 years ago, I knew I had problems. Nonetheless, it made me realize just how slow and plodding the current pace of the game is, bogged down by a level of scrutiny that simply never existed. You're probably not surprised to hear the game wasn't always this way. 

How did I tunnel my way into a wormhole of a 1989 AFC Divisional Playoff between the Steelers and Broncos? It began as a flash of interest into Louis Lipps' career. A football card of the former Steelers wideout came across my Twitter timeline. I remember him as an exciting playmaker who evaporated into relative obscurity, so I wanted to look back and survey his career again. A quick search of Pro-Football Reference showed he made the Pro Bowl his first two seasons, but never reached the same heights after that. It was a good, not great career. 

This is not a column about Lipps, however. It got me looking at his playoff game log, which led me to his two games in the '89 postseason. I had forgotten the Cinderella Steelers had played two exciting playoff games that January. Pittsburgh had been in a tailspin in the latter years of Chuck Noll, the '70s dynasty eroding into a perennial loser into the late '80s. They crumbled to an embarrassing 5-11 in '88. 

But '89 was different as Pittsburgh won five of its final six games to finish 9-7 and slip in as a Wild Card. The Steelers then upset the Oilers in the Astrodome to earn a trip to the top-seeded Broncos in the divisional round. They gave a scare to the Broncos but lost 24-23. As I perused the box score, I was surprised I didn't remember this game. I'm sure I watched it live, but hadn't thought about it since turning off our old hulking Zenith encased in wood and set on wheels. 

The beauty of being a modern sports fan is that I easily pulled that full game up on YouTube to relive what I had forgotten. The Broncos scored the tying touchdown with 2:27 to play on a Melvin Bratton plunge from the 1-yard line. They kicked the extra point to take the lead. Denver then kicked off into the end zone, a touchback for the Steelers. In between the touchdown and kickoff Mile High rocked, it swayed, the fans threw shreds of paper on the field. Noll and Reeves looked stoic on the sideline as deafening madness was raining down from the rafters. Broncos WR Vance Johnson whipped the crowd into a frenzy, Bratton from the bench whirled his fist. How do I know? I watched it all. NBC never went to commercial break. 

Today, TV execs pay such an exorbitant fee for rights they have smashed as many ads into the broadcast as possible. Forget soaking in the scene of a chaotic and joyous stadium in the waning minutes. We often times go to break after the PAT, then again after the kickoff. Even if the viewer isn't zapped into a commercial, we're often forced to watch the scene at the stadium in a little box, as an ad fills up the rest of the screen and carries the audio of an insurance or beer pitch. Not thirty years ago. It took exactly three minutes (I timed it) from the time Bratton crosses the goal line to the Steelers lining up for 1st and 10 from their own 20. Amazing. 

On first down, young quarterback Bubby Brister rolls right and has an open receiver 20 yards down field, but it's dropped. The emotional Brister, a rajin' cajun from Monroe, Louisiana, who played his college ball at little ol' Northeast Louisiana, can't believe it. The slow motion replay shows him jumping up and down, twisting around in a fit of frustration at his teammate. He throws his hands in the air, then tries to reach down and slam the turf. It is a staggering demonstration of anger by a QB toward his receiver. Today, that clip would immediately go viral. The Twittersphere would be on fire shredding Brister for showing up a teammate. Hot take artists would claim he didn't have the right disposition to win, that his anger hurt the franchise, that he wasn't a good leader. Brister's reputation would be torched, and it would be the topic of all debate shows on Monday and throughout the offseason. Yet the broadcasting tandem of Dick Enberg and Bill Walsh didn't even mention it. 

After an underthrown incompletion by Brister on 2nd down (another log on the fire for critics in an alternate universe where this game is played in 2019), the Steelers melt down. From shotgun on 3rd-and-10, Brister is trying to scream over the din of the Denver crowd. He starts waving his arms wildly in frustration, trying to get the attention of his lineman. It doesn't work. The snap is low, Brister pulls away from the line a hair too quickly (likely in anticipation of the blitz), and the ball bounces off his hands and onto the turf. It's recovered by the Broncos. The stadium erupts. Broncos fans can taste the title game. Upon the change of possession, amazingly NBC again does not go to break. Denver lines up and calls a run over the right side, which brings us to the 2:00 warning. We finally have a commercial interruption for the first time in what feels like a dizzying three years. 

After the break, the Broncos get the first down to drain the rest of the clock. The Steelers lose 24-23. Mile High Stadium goes berserk, celebrating a third trip to the AFC Title Game in four years. In the final three minutes of a dramatic playoff game there were no official reviews. No challenges. No penalties. No delays. No pauses. No waiting. No debating the spot. No questioning the first-down marker. No red flags. No ex-refs in the booth interpreting some arcane rule. Just football. Hell, we barely had a commercial break. 

As the sport grew into even a larger cultural monolith, and the technology improved, things became distorted. More of the country began watching more of the games. The TV networks began placing more cameras and angles at every game. The culture began demanding more accountability, screaming louder, pounding its fists more. Coaches were fired quicker. The urgency to win immediately grew. Players made more money based on the bounce of a ball, or a call by an official. Everything heightened. And thus by the late '90s everyone was in unison to use every technology to make sure calls were right. 

So here we are. Games are turtle races, gummed up by the over-officiating, the paralysis by expanded instant replay. Coaches want explanations on everything, and are willing to challenge anything, even when they know they'll lose. HD and slow-motion cameras from all points give us Matrix-level views, and former officials dot the booths with pseudo-explanations on every play. Television networks look for any opportunity to shove another sponsor or commercial into the game. The audience is now armed with smartphones, waiting to type out angry firebombs and snarky critique at any mistake. Media looking for a way to stand out above the noise shout louder, the tornado building furiously. The criticism roars like a river after a rainstorm, gaining power by picking up more of its kind. 
 
Thirty years ago there was none of that. An exciting football game was allowed to be played on its own merit at a normal pace. There's certainly value in getting the calls right. There's a benefit in better technology. Social media has given the fans a platform to connect to each other, players and media. But we lost a lot in that evolution. We lost a chunk of sanity, and a natural rhythm to the sport. We twisted ourselves into logic pretzels and dove headfirst into emotional arguments. We lost our way, and I'm guessing we don't ever get it back. 

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 9:00AM-12:00PM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.