Deux quarts de réserve et la machine narrative implacable de la NFL

Two reserve quarterbacks and the NFL’s relentless narrative machine

SEATTLE — The National Football League, perhaps more than any other American sport, fuels its popularity through the deep and unyielding power of history. Thursday night’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers showed that in spades.

It was more than a matchup between two teams jostling for the playoffs, with San Francisco needing a win to wrap up the NFC West Division title. On another level, this game was the story of two quarterbacks: Seattle veteran Geno Smith versus San Francisco underdog (so far) rookie Brock Purdy.

Their travels, a combined chronicle of perseverance, added an extra level of intrigue to what would otherwise have been a relatively routine affair. Together, they provided another showcase of how the constant flow of NFL stories excites and obscures the league’s dark issues.

The league has a lot of vile flaws. Brain damaged and broken down former players. Racism. Homophobia. Misogyny. The owner of the Washington Commanders. Cleveland Browns quarterback.

Yet the NFL still thrives, so entrenched in culture that it seems destined to always be America’s most-watched sport.

It helps to be an almost perfect product for fans to consume through their screens: the colors, the action, the clamor. It helps that the action focuses on violence and aggression, fitting the zeitgeist. The league has more players than other professional leagues, providing more opportunities to tell new stories.

The NFL spits compelling narratives with the perfected rhythm of a drum machine. Every week of the short, high-stakes season, there seems to be something new for fans to chew on, obsess over, and sink their teeth into. Sometimes it’s horrible and ugly. Sometimes it’s uplifting and wrapped in promise.

Purdy, an Iowa State rookie, is full of promise. The 22-year-old was so unrecognized in college that he was last taken in the NFL Draft in April, making him the “Mr. Not relevant” of the class. The title seemed too appropriate.

“Extremely inconsistent,” said an analysis of Purdy ahead of this year’s draft. “He struggles in the limelight. He looks freaked out on the big stages.

So far so bad.

Purdy never struggled, looked panicked or betrayed the inconsistency Thursday night in a 21-13 win over the Seahawks. His 49ers team, despite being dogged all season by injuries, has a unified look and the confident feel of a Super Bowl contender.

Purdy played with the same confidence as he did in last Sunday’s win over Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And like he did two weeks ago when he took over after Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot against the Miami Dolphins. That’s three straight wins. In his two starts combined, he completed about 70% of his passes, threw four touchdowns and avoided interceptions.

It’s time for a new title: Mr. Relevant.

He’s “the most balanced rookie I’ve ever had,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “The team had a lot of respect for him before this game, but a lot more now. »

Purdy played it cool in a postgame press conference. It’s “definitely not ‘all praise to Brock,'” he said of himself, downplaying his startling momentum and praising the players around him.

Sorry, Brock, but right now all the praise that’s going your way is well deserved, even if it’s coming in a little warm and heavy from 49ers fans, who have already started comparing you to, no pressure here… young Joe Montana.

Purdy’s story wasn’t the only one to follow on Thursday night. Geno Smith spent most of his nine-year tenure in the NFL as a backup. Like his San Francisco counterpart, Smith never listened to the skeptics — and there were plenty of them.

Not too long ago, tipsters, fans, NFL executives and seemingly every league head coach not named Pete Carroll had given up on the idea that Smith could once again become a viable starting quarterback.

In 2014, about to enter his third season for the Jets, still trying to find his place in professional football, he lost his starting position in the most unusual way: a teammate broke his jaw during a fight in the locker room. It took until this season for Smith to see a long stretch of playing time again.

A quarterback doing what he did in 2022 — having sat on the bench for the Jets, Giants, Chargers and finally behind Russell Wilson in Seattle — is a rare feat. When Smith started this season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first quarterback since the early 1970s to go eight years between starts.

Yet there he was against the 49ers, not only initially but, as he has done all season, playing at least as well if not far better than this year’s dismal version of Wilson, the Hall-caliber quarterback. of Fame who was traded to the Denver Broncos. off-season (and not playing like a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback).

Smith, 32, entered the game among the NFL’s best in passing yards and touchdowns. Against a San Francisco team with one of the tightest defenses in the league, he found himself constantly backpedaling but still acquitted himself well: one touchdown, 238 yards, no interceptions. He completed 70.5% of his passes, just below his league-leading mark of 71.5% before the game.

Geno Smith, an MVP-caliber starter? He’s been just that for much of this season. Who would have thought?

We live in the age of fast microwaves. Apparently, everything must happen instantly. In the NFL, if a quarterback struggles in his freshman year, doubt begins to swirl around him. Struggling in Year 2 is like drilling multiple nails in the coffin — just ask the Jets’ Zach Wilson. Don’t even think about not mastering the craft by grade 3. If that happens, the result is almost always the same: you’re done, dumped in backup role purgatory.

Smith lies to the idea that quick results and quick mastery should reign supreme. (I hope Zach Wilson is taking notes.) Sometimes slow and steady persistence pays off.

“Patience,” Smith said this week, heading into the 49ers game. “I think all the things that we go through in life when you really embrace them become lessons. »

He talked about how he felt like he had talent all these years, but was facing a glass ceiling. “It’s like something is hovering over you. You want to break it to keep going further. I just had to be patient until I got the chance.

The NFL narrative machine is spinning in circles. Will this always be enough to hide the dark sides of professional football? For most fans, apparently yes.

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