As the stakes get raised with the NFL playoffs, so does the venom. Heroes are crowned; goats are named, then blamed.
It happens every year, but the advent of social media has given both players and fans the opportunity to vent or applaud publicly. Two cases were made last weekend that supported both ends of the spectrum.
First was the ugly incident in Cincinnati, where the Bengals lost their heads and then lost the game because of it. Back-to-back 15-yard penalties on Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones may have cost the Bengals their first playoff win in five straight seasons of being a one-and-done frustration.
The game itself was both ugly and a testament to competitiveness. Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game on a clean hit by Burfict, but returned for the heroic final drive. Burfict’s name is all over the gamebook – as a starter, for intercepting a pass, for a sack, six tackles, including two for a loss, a pass defensed and a forced fumble.
His last entry in the play-by-play, for unsportsmanlike conduct, undid all the previous good.
He was all over the field in the first half, then sacked Roethlisberger on the last play of the third quarter, knocking him out of the game temporarily with a shoulder injury. It was a clean hit, a good, hard football play.
If his day had ended when he ran into the tunnel in celebration of his sack at the end of the third quarter, it would have been a successful day and possibly a win for the Bengals, who had a 16-15 lead late in the fourth quarter. But when Burfict recklessly threw his shoulder into the helmet of receiver Antonio Brown as a defenseless receiver, it rightfully drew an unnecessary roughness penalty. He was acting as an old-time enforcer in a league in that shrunk the hit zone and was called to the carpet for its own recklessness in decades gone by, and Burfict’s hit came far too late in the play and far too high on Brown’s body. Had that been the end of it, the Steelers might have been looking at a 50-yard field goal attempt.
But when the officials didn’t flag Pittsburgh outside linebacker coach Joey Porter for being on the field and apparently talking trash to the Bengals, Jones contacted an official and drew another flag. To that point, the game was ugly enough – with Brown laying on the field after Burfict’s full-impact blow to the head – but after the Steelers took advantage of those two penalties and kicked the game-winning, 35-yard field with 14 seconds left, the post-game reaction turned pathetic.
The Bengals had every right to be upset. At the officials for not penalizing Porter for being on the field. But even more at themselves for losing their composure. Despite that, Jones took to Instagram for a profanity-laced video that called out the officials, who were put in a bad position to start the game by the two teams’ chippy play in previous meetings. Jones ended up deleting the Instagram post – it lives on in other Internet spaces – but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him fined at the least and maybe even suspended. Burfict was already issued a suspension for three games, meaning his competitiveness in a 2015 playoff game helped keep his team from advancing and will continue to hurt his team into the 2016 season.
The Minnesota Vikings had their own meltdown a day later, but this one was on the field. Trailing 10-9 with less than two minutes to play, they drove down the field and put kicker Blair Walsh in ideal field goal position, a “chip-shot” 27-yard attempt, as his head coach, Mike Zimmer, termed it.
Walsh pulled the kick badly with 22 seconds remaining and the Vikings lost.
But, unlike the Bengals, the Vikings blamed themselves. Walsh was the goat and made the NFL’s top-10 list of memorable field goal attempts. But Walsh didn’t refuse to talk to reporters. He spent more than five minutes publicly taking ownership of his mistake, for which he deserved and received criticism. But his teammates roundly supported him, saying there were other plays that helped contribute to the loss – like Adrian Peterson’s fumble that led to the game-winning points or allowing Russell Wilson to turn a botched shotgun snap over his head into a 35-yard pass play to set up Seattle’s only touchdown of the game.
There was no social media post from Walsh calling out the fans that posted nasty comment on his Twitter timeline. The next day, Walsh again addressed the media, and given the chance to react to the despicable comments calling for not only his job but his life, he simply said he appreciated those fans that continued to support him.
Walsh’s missed kick came in front of approximately 44 million television viewers. He will be forced to live with the “what-might-have-been” thoughts that will surely occupy his mind for weeks, months, even decades, to come.
Walsh’s kick couldn’t have been much worse coming from one of the highest-paid kickers; his reaction to the failure couldn’t have been much better.
Failing on the NFL’s spectacular playoff stage has to be excruciating. There are many ways to handle it.
While Walsh returns home to figure out his long-term response, Jones maintains that “I know” Antonio Brown was faking his injury, and yet Brown is in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
Here’s to the upcoming second round of the playoffs. Let’s hope the focus is the more appropriate F-word – football.