The NFL preseason is the land of eternal optimism, at least if you're a writer. Team have spent months acquiring new talent and polishing up new schemes, and we are all invited to Ooh and Aah. Then we all play a game of evaluating, as realistically (*cough*) as possible, the reasons why this team will be better this year than last.
There is a specific language that is used in this season of sunshine and lollipops. You hear it all over, from the pages of national publications to overheard conversations, to the point that it all starts to sound the same, year after year.
So when you hear something profoundly negative in August, it's like a drunk in a midnight choir. You can't help but take notice.
The Langauge of Rebirth
As an example: here is a 2,500-word Rams season preview by Andy Benoit of the MMQB.com, boiled down to its descriptive phrases. Here's Benoit on the Rams' path to 2013:
tough (division) / rebuilding team / meaningful part / playoff picture.
ample cap space / major free agent signings.
raw athleticism / high-shelf athletes / top-shelf athletes.
blind eye / minor legal issues / disgraced ex-Lion.
quietly assembling / strong collection / clear and shrewd plan.
Here's Benoit describing the offense:
unique, even unparalleled playmaking potential.
tremendous value / schematic comfort zones / various threats.
straight-line speed / tremendous formation variation / clever offensive designer
sensational speed / natural movement skills / too much of an unknown / disappointing rookie campaign / supremely confident
Here is Benoit describing the defense:
intriguing dark horse / raw talent.
fluid and has remarkable speed and quickness / consistent technique / tremendous suddenness / natural country strength.
dynamic all-around force / improved closing quickness / underrated combination of power and quickness.
scintillating playmaking prowess / immaturity / midseason slump.
From these words, you can fill in the gaps and tell the preseason story of our team. Most stories of most teams are happy ones in August, but these Rams seem particularly brimming with potential. The foundations of a breakout story are being laid in advance, just in case.
Bernie Kosar and Ugly Babies
Now weigh those words against the words used by Bernie Kosar in Cleveland's broadcast booth:
horrible receivers / Bradford struggling / bad receivers / I'd be embarrassed.
can't stand watching [Clemens] play / bad quarterback
This story has blown up in part because of Jeff Fisher's fiery response, and in part because Kosar may or may not be punch-drunk all the time. But it would not have been a story at all if Kosar hadn't deviated so far away from the accepted langauge of the preseason.
Apparently a good number of folks in Cleveland love him for his "tell it like it is" style, and have pointed out that he is just as critical of his own team. And hey, they're welcome to. Rams fans loved hearing Jim Hanifan, inadvertent curse words and all, on their radio broadcasts … especially when our team sucked and needed to be chewed out. Cubs fans loved Ron Santo for much the same reason.
But this is the preseason. The first week. These teams are like babies right now, simple and pudgy and full of potential. And even ugly babies get cooed over by broadcast media. It's just good manners.
Kosar, on the other hand, saw what he thought was an ugly baby and shuffled his broken self over to point and laugh at it. A lot. For three hours.
I Pead, Too Freely.
In the end, though, nobody really cares what Kosar thinks (or fails to think). It doesn't affect the Rams' fortunes. But when one of our own players in the midst of a free-for-all camp battle starts deviating from the script, then the worry meter cranks up.
Last week, Isaiah Pead was lobbed a few softballs by a pair of St Louis radio announcers, and managed to strike out swinging. They ask him: "what do you bring to the team?" Here is his distilled response. As you can see, it starts out by the book, but ends on a curious note.
speed / playmakers / big-play ability / another piece of the puzzle / trying to earn my trust.
He is then asked about whether the Rams' backfield will remain a platoon all season long.
I can't call it / focused on making a play / not making a mistake / fixing it / currently made a mistake / not paying attention / let things play out
Things really get uncomfortable when asked if he is excited to showcase himself in this first preseason game.
of course / unfortunately, it's a business / don't play a lot sometimes / new year / new opportunity
look forward / even if I didn't have a good feeling / [football] is what we love / opportunity to compete / other teams / other guys watching / god forbid / job here doesn't last / causes a lot of anxiety for some guys / mentally / I'm the other type of guy
a lot of mistakes / replayed in my head / older, wiser person / mentally / smarter / rookie mistakes / grow up
By the time he is asked about intangibles of playing the position, the sunny language of the preseason is completely gone.
every snap counts / every blitz pickup / every dropped ball / every missed cut or missed assignment / make mistakes / pray for perfect practice / doesn't happen / coaches / competition / on high alert
This is where Pead's head was at before fumbling away his first touch of the preseason game. Focused on mistakes, and on trying to avoid them, and on what might happen if he couldn't.
Now granted, a player in a camp battle is necessarily in a different mindset than some weekly hack trying to fill column inches or dead air. But still, most player interviews stick to the same well-worn sets of vocabulary as the writers do; in part, because they know the power of their words. Or more importantly, they know how powerful a negative perception can be, whether it be by the fans or their coaches, or even by the little voice inside their own head.
When Kosar spits ignorance and invective, he is proving a point in his own stumbling, quixotic way — that he is going to be honest, and he doesn't care what you think he should say.
But when Pead starts unconsciously verbally undermining himself with his honesty, it says something very different. It says that he doesn't know what you think he should say.
For some young men, this is a difficult lesson to learn on the long road to growing up. In the high-stakes game of an NFL roster battle, though, that lesson may come too late.