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Are We at Peak Football?

February 3, 2020
Are We at Peak Football?
Party's over. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

1. Peak Football

So that’s two lousy Big Games in a row.

Last night’s Chiefs-Niners Super Bowl was the most boring competently-played championship game we’ve seen in a long while. There were maybe five or six key plays in the whole of the game and not a lot of drama in the flow of the game itself.

Some thoughts:

  • I always thought that the skater-dad who coaches San Francisco was a real talent because he’s the only person—player or coach—to ever escape the Redskins organization and go on to success elsewhere. But boy, howdy, he gakked that game.
  • Shanahan played conservatively throughout. He kicked field goals instead of going for touchdowns. He didn’t even try to move the ball at the end of the first half. He didn’t lose the game by himself. But he wasn’t playing to win.
  • Everybody talks about Patrick Mahomes as if he’s the second coming of Michael Vick, but I think that misunderstands his gifts. What impresses me about him isn’t his ability to gain yards with his feet, but his ability to avoid hits, escape tackles, and extend the play. He reminds me a lot of Big Ben.
  • We’ve been spoiled by having three of the greatest Super Bowls ever in recent years: Eagles over Pats (2018), Pats over Falcons (2017), Pats over Seahawks (2015). We’re clearly regressing to the mean of my ’90s childhood.

There’s one bigger thing going on, though, that I think this Super Bowl was indicative of:

In recent years we’ve hit what I think of as Peak Football. It started with the televising of the draft and continued with the craze for fantasy football and the expansion of the NFL to both Sunday night and Thursday.

During the early 2000s, the NFL was incredibly in demand, so the league kept making more product.

But while they amped up the supply, they seemed to lose track of how important scarcity is in creating demand. And how technology was changing consumption: The world is very different when everyone can buy a 70″ UHD set for their living room for $500.

The NFL also seems to have ignored the extent to which this peak occurred during a Golden Age for the league in terms of quarterback talent—Manning, Brady, Brees, Rogers Manning II, Foles. And also, that the league had its own version of the Evil Empire in the Patriots.

And if professional sports has taught us anything, it’s that people LOVE to have a dominant franchise to worship/hate.

So here we are, at a moment of transition for the league. The era of star QBs is just about over and the next generation of stars haven’t really proven themselves yet. The Patriots may be waning. There’s more football than anyone can reasonably want—and with the New Jack XFL starting five days from now.

I would not go so far as to say that the NFL is in trouble, exactly. But I think professional football is going to have to retrench and re-rationalize itself at some point in the near future.

2. Halftime

I love me some J-Lo and Hustlers was one of my favorite movies of 2019. But while last night’s halftime show might have killed it in Miami, it was meh as far as halftime shows go.

I was about to say “It was so much worse than recent halftime shows” but then I looked at the list and realized that’s probably not true.

It was better than Maroon 5! There are a lot of people who like Justin Timberlake. I thought Shakira/J-Lo were better than his set in 2018.

But compared to the Beyonce/Bruno Mars? Or Katy Perry/Lenny Kravitz? Or Black Eyed Peas/Usher? This was a decidedly mediocre act.

I looked back at the last 20 years of Super Bowl halftime shows—can you believe we once did this thing with the trio of Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, and Enrique Iglesias?—and it’s clear to me that only one halftime show during that period has been legit awesome:

It was Prince, singing in the rain, in 2007.

No one denies this. A halftime show for the ages.

(I promise we’ll talk about politics tomorrow.)

3. National Conservatism

Noah Rothman is here to warn us that eventually we’re going to be told that true national conservatism has never been tried!

The signing of a “Phase I” agreement with China last month eases tensions by restoring China’s agricultural purchases to 2017 levels over the next two years and includes a commitment from China to crack down on intellectual property theft—a commitment the Chinese government made to Barack Obama, too. But the pain the trade war inflicted on some of the nationalist conservatives’ most favored constituencies has been devastating. The U.S. manufacturing sector fell into a mild recession this month after several quarters of slow or negative growth, and some manufacturers say trade-related tensions with China contributed to that condition. America’s farmers who lost access to the Chinese market were the beneficiaries of a $28 billion rescue package from the federal government—more than twice the automotive bailout that fueled a populist revolt under Barack Obama’s administration. Nevertheless, ten states recorded a record number of farm bankruptcies in 2019, a year in which overall Chapter 12 declarations rose by 20 percent.

Surely, this is not the national “industrial policy” that Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass advocated in theory and which conference attendees supported by a vote of 91 to 55. But if this administration could not deliver for its most ideologically simpatico constituents, what future administration will? . . .

At the outset of his presidency, venture capitalist and democracy skeptic Peter Thiel counseled the president to disrupt the status quo as much as possible. In his personal conduct, Trump has followed Thiel’s advice. But in policy, the Trump administration has on balance rejected the exhortations of its nationalistic cohorts. To the extent that the president gets high marks from the right, it is for pursuing conventionally conservative policies. From appointing judges with the Federalist Society’s imprimatur to restoring due process rights once subordinated to the objective of social leveling; from the administration’s supply-side economic prescriptions to its extroverted and muscular foreign policy—Trump gets his highest marks from Republicans when he is doing traditionally Republican things.

It is when Trump is at his most disruptive that the world comes down around his shoulders. That is what the nationalist conservative movement has not reconciled, and why it has taken on a theological flavor to justify its program of ever-more-invasive intrusions into private life. The radical revision of the social compact the national conservative movement envisions is a remedy wildly disproportionate to the scale of the challenges facing the country.

In a sense, true national conservatism has never been tried.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.