King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The NFL's Big Show returns to the Big Easy: Real symbolism shouldn't obscure the devastation that remains in New Orleans.

Published September 25, 2006 4:00PM (EDT)

The NFL and NBC insist that Sunday night is the new Monday night, that the big prime-time show is now the Sunday game on the Peacock, not the formerly reigning Monday game, now on ESPN, usually with the sound turned off.

At least this week, that's just not true.

The Atlanta Falcons visit the New Orleans Saints in a surprisingly important NFC South game between two teams off to 2-0 starts, but of course the main event is the return of the NFL to New Orleans and the Superdome, site of so much suffering during Hurricane Katrina, even after accounting for the false rumors reported as news 13 months ago.

The Denver Broncos beating the New England Patriots on the road Sunday night was a pretty good show, two of the stronger conference's marquee teams doing a lot to establish their 2006 personalities.

But U2 didn't show up and play, if you know what I mean.

The NFL kicked in $15 million of the $185 million needed to get the ravaged Superdome game-ready, ending the Saints' one-year exile. The team was headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, last year, playing home games there, in Baton Rouge, La., and, on one sorry occasion, on the home field of its opponent, the New York Giants, in New Jersey.

There's all sorts of symbolism going on here. Not only is the return of big-time pro sports to the Big Easy symbolic of the city's rebuilding effort, but the Saints are a symbol of hope, if you're into that sort of thing.

Coming off their literally disastrous 3-13 season in 2005, the Saints have won their first two games, beating weak opponents but winning nonetheless. Even more uplifting, Saints fans, local businesses and others have rallied behind the team and bought up the entire season's worth of tickets, the first season sellout in franchise history.

And here's more symbolism: The Superdome has been fully cleaned and sanitized since it served as a shelter. It has a new roof, a new field, new paint, new sheetrock, new seats. But the luxury boxes are still a mess, lacking carpeting and permanent furniture. The rich folks and fat cats have had to wait while the People were served.

OK. Fair enough. All this symbolism can't be ignored. Except for its owners and employees, what is an NFL football team other than a symbol for its home city or region? The Superdome is one of New Orleans' civic symbols, one of the things it uses to broadcast to the rest of the world that it exists.

There's no denying that for a city that relies so heavily on tourism, getting the Superdome up and running and bringing the football team back home were top priorities, to show a country that's mostly forgotten about New Orleans' continuing, dire struggles that progress is being made, and hey, why not plan a visit or, better yet, bring your convention.

But here's hoping it doesn't go too far.

The NFL, like most sports leagues, is pretty happy to pat itself on the back for its good works. TV networks love uplifting, feel-good stories, tales of resurrection and hope. TV cameras only show what their operators want them to show, and it would be easy for ESPN to celebrate this very real rebirth and downplay the devastation that continues to plague what's left of a great city.

"What we can do," Saints running back Deuce McAllister, a Mississippi native who has been critical of some of the failures in the recovery effort, has said, "we give these people something to cheer about for three hours. For three hours every Sunday they can go and cheer for their Saints."

That's something. I hope ESPN gives its viewers a clear view of what a small something it is in light of what remains to be done. It would be the only honest way to cover what should be a genuinely moving, genuinely exciting event.

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Learn the rules, NFL people [PERMALINK]

If for some reason you were watching the end of the St. Louis Rams-Arizona Cardinals game Sunday, you almost saw something I've been hoping to see for years, a fair-catch kick.

The kick, which would have surprised almost everybody watching, including, apparently, Rams coach Scott Linehan, because they didn't know such a thing even existed, didn't happen, because Linehan and his staff were informed of the rule by the officials.

People who are supposed to know the NFL's rules not knowing them is a hobbyhorse of mine lately. Usually the point I'm making is that the league's rule book is far too byzantine for anyone's good. But beyond that, some of the more basic, though obscure, rules of the game are completely beyond people who should know them. People like coaches and network TV announcers.

If I hear one more announcer talking about whether a receiver made a "football move" on a play in which he dropped the ball without being hit -- making the "football move" assessment moot, as everyone should have learned after the botched Troy Polamalu interception call in the playoffs last season -- I'm going to take a hostage.

Here's what happened Sunday in Arizona: The Rams, leading 16-14 in the Only the Seahawks Are Making the Playoffs From the NFC West Bowl, couldn't quite run out the clock and had to punt with five seconds left. Cardinal Troy Walters made a fair catch at his own 33 with double zeroes on the clock. The Cardinals were flagged for offside on the play.

For some reason, everybody knows that a half can't end on an accepted defensive penalty, so the Rams declined. That meant the play stood, and that meant the Cardinals were entitled to a fair-catch kick.

A what?

I love this crazy rule, which I happened upon in the rule book years ago. I'd never heard it mentioned before then, and have been hoping to see one ever since. One actually happened last year, the Tennessee Titans trying it at the end of the first half against the Houston Texans.

Incredibly, a play in a Titans-Texans game during the first weekend of the baseball playoffs escaped my notice.

Anyway, the rule is that after a fair catch on a punt, the receiving team has the option of a free kick for a field goal. The teams line up as on a kickoff, with the defense back 10 yards, and the kicker can run up as he does on a kickoff, though he can't use a tee. If the kick goes through the uprights, it's a field goal. If not, it's a live ball, basically a kickoff.

Fox announcers Brad Sham and Bill Maas, of course, got it wrong as they tried to explain the rule, saying it applies when a fair catch is made at the end of a half. The rule applies any time. The end-of-half element is that the receiving team retains the right to the free kick even if time is expired when it makes the fair catch.

That's why the end of a half is probably the only time you'll see it, because otherwise, it's almost always better to run a play. You might see it in overtime if a team punts from deep in its own end. That is, if the receiving team knows the rule, which it probably doesn't.

I've seen teams punt from deep in their own territory in overtime, but I've never seen the receiving team call for a fair catch and try what would be a relatively easy free-kick, 50 yards or so, for the win. Ever watch kickers warm up before a game? To an NFL kicker, an uncontested 50-yard field goal isn't quite a layup, but it's not a difficult kick.

So Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers is on the field, warming up to try a 77-yard field goal! It would have broken the NFL record by 14 yards, or 22 percent. When Mark McGwire obliterated Roger Maris' single-season home run record, he bettered it by less than 15 percent.

Rackers later said he thought he had about a 5 percent chance of making the thing, but when you're down 16-14 and the clock says 0:00 in the fourth quarter, a 5 percent chance of winning looks pretty sweet.

But alas and alackadaisy, it was not to be. The officials sweetly informed Linehan that declining the offside penalty would give the Cardinals the chance to kick, so the Rams changed their mind and took the flag. That meant they had to run one more play, since everyone knows a half can't end on an accepted defensive penalty, so they took a knee and the game was over, even though they'd turned the ball over on downs.

The NFL introduces a raft of rules changes every off-season, many of which are meant to fix loopholes created by earlier adjustments to the Kafka-esque edifice of regulations. Maybe next spring, urged by the Cardinals, a new rule will say a half can't end on a play that results in a change of possession on downs.

That'd be funny, especially in 17 years, when the Cardinals lose a game because of it, and people all over Arizona fume, "Why on earth does that rule exist?"

Here's a rule I'm proposing: If you accept or decline a penalty, that's it. You only get to answer once. If you're ignorant of some aspect of the rules, too bad. The Rams shouldn't have gotten to change their answer once they were educated about the rules, which they should have known anyway. You don't get to remake a chess move once you discover it was a bad one. This should be the same.

We see this more commonly when a coach throws a challenge flag, then is allowed to pick it up after the referee explains that the play wasn't "challengeable." Hey, you threw the flag. If the play can't be challenged, then you lose the challenge.

It's bad enough that the most inside of insiders in the NFL don't know the rules. It's worse that they don't even get punished for not knowing them.

And it's even worse than that that we didn't get to see a fair-catch kick. Damn.

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