Back before it all began, when the 2011 football season was just a lush, sweet section of future calendar for me, it was easy to imagine the path to a Super Bowl victory stretching out straight as a sideline before the New York Jets. A lot of it was that the Jets head coach, Rex Ryan, was always assuring me in his big, warm-blooded, exuberant way that the Jets were "going to win it all." It was Ryan, and the Jets general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, who invited me to spend the year with the team at the Jets facility in Florham Park, New Jersey. They gave me a security code, a desk in the scouting department, a locker, and the freedom to roam. I was hardly any kind of football expert -- I wasn't aware, even, that football teams never tackle during practice during the season because it's too dangerous -- but I knew enough to be sure that Ryan's gleeful, unbuttoned optimism was something rare in football coaches, a notoriously frowning and tight-lipped cohort. I liked that Ryan was different. I was there because Ryan was different. Nobody in modern professional football had ever let someone like me inside before.
Not very long ago, the NFL had been the cushioned recliner onto which men collapsed, disengaging from life for "the feeling of being alive," as Frederick Exley described his Sundays in "A Fan's Notes." Cartoons in the 1970s joked about the football-focused man; in one, he's informed, "There's a family reunion in the dining room"; in another, he dismisses his wife with "I doubt that Pat feels obliged to sit and watch with Dick.'
Suddenly now football was the great spectacle of twenty-first century America, the game of our time. The field's squared-off dimensions, so compatible with the grid of electronic screens, and the stop-and-start pace of play, which accommodated replays and flickering attention spans, made it a better game on television than live. You could miss everything and miss nothing -- football was an ideal activity for a distracted public. With every game now of national interest, the networks were doing land-office business. "Saturday Night Football" replaced "American Idol" as the country's most popular broadcast. More women watched NFL games than watched the Academy Awards. (The Jets running-back coach Anthony Lynn had been divorced several years earlier after an eighteen-year marriage. He is now remarried, but he told me that the biggest change he noticed during his second round of dating was that women had come to love football.)
And yet, was there an activity that Americans paid closer attention to but knew less about? That was what made football so different from baseball, the soothingly familiar national pastime. Baseball was nostalgia, past times; football lived in the ongoing moment. Baseball individuated; football, which Ryan always called "the ultimate team game," huddled up and scrummed. Yet for all that exposure, football kept its distance, remained a closed society whose core inaccessibility increased its appeal. It was the national passion, the unrequiting sport -- something graceful, thrilling, dangerous, and concealed in plain sight.
That most fans had no idea what the players were doing was something of a point of pride within the game. Tom Moore, who had a long and distinguished offensive-coaching career primarily with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Indianapolis Colts, tells a joke about an older woman who attended a football game for the first time. Afterward, somebody asked her what she'd made of it. "It was delightful until some crazy guy kicked a ball. I never understood anything after that." The Jets linebacker coach, Bob Sutton, compared players in their helmets and pads to armored knights on horses -- "You knew there was somebody in there but you didn't know who the hell it was!" Sutton likewise savored the fact that, to others, a coach was "a kind of mythical person."
The game thrived on mystery. Just as the equipment obscured the players, the mechanics of the sport were such that you were always trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. Half the time you couldn't locate the ball, tucked away as it was like a bean in a bowl of Bartlett pears, and even when it was spotted, each play took place so quickly that in postgame press conferences, the standard coachly response to any request for reflection was that the coach himself couldn't say yet because he hadn't reviewed the game tape. So much went on away from the ball that it was impossible not to assume that you were missing a lot of what was meaningful about football. In particular, what tended to pass by unnoticed was good defense, the intricate countermeans that disallowed the ends. If, like me, you considered defense to be the essence of football, this was a significant lacuna.