McGinn: 'Boring' tie embodies football's essence

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones (55) forces a fumble by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during the fourth quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Oct. 23, 2016.

Green Bay – Sometimes fans, talking heads and fellow sportswriters view football games so much differently than me.

The 6-6 tie Sunday night between the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks might have been the best game I’ve seen in 10 years, live or on television. It underscored what the NFL can be and often isn’t, a defensive spectacle of immense proportion that wouldn’t be ruined by decades of rules changes favoring offense or consistently uneven officiating.

The blown field goals in overtime, one per team, brought me back to my early years on the beat when three points were anything but automatic. They ultimately determined the outcome but failed to affect the overall viewing experience.

Recording the game, I watched with remote in hand starting about two hours after kickoff. Never saw a commercial, didn’t hear much commentary.

My plan was to see some of both teams and turn in early. Instead, I lost all track of time because the 3-hour, 41-minute game was so fascinating, and I watched until the very end.

Snap after snap was worth replaying. The defenses dominated good offenses like they haven’t been dominated in years. It was sensational stuff.

At mid-week, I saw some reactions from Twitter.

“We are all dumber for having watching that.”

“Worst NFL game ever.”

“Our long national nightmare.”

As corny as Seattle coach Pete Carroll can be, he was dead on opening his postgame news briefing with these words: “That was really an amazing football game.”

With 4:44 left in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks had four first downs and 122 yards in 10 possessions. Their left tackle had just departed with a knee injury. They looked dead.

Playing with a brace protecting a sprained left knee and on a sprained ankle, Russell Wilson tried to play on bravery alone. He couldn’t run or move laterally to escape the rush, His line was a mess, his ground game null and void.

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Chandler Jones, Markus Golden and Calais Campbell besieged Wilson on almost every pass attempt. He was down five times, but it was testament to his resourcefulness that just one was a sack.

As wacky as it might seem in the point-driven NFL of today, I doubted seriously that the Seahawks could score, so inept were they on offense and so overwhelming were the Cardinals on defense.

Then the Seahawks’ special teams shifted everything. GM John Schneider and Carroll kept ex-Badger Tanner McEvoy because of his athleticism and length, and sure enough it was McEvoy who broke through and blocked a punt.

In their last two possessions of the fourth quarter the Seahawks simply were overrun up front, drawing four holding penalties. The Cardinals cranked up their defensive intensity even higher, and the Seahawks were just fortunate to kick a field goal and get to overtime.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s highly-paid defense performed with a savagery we’ve seen for years. David Johnson, the terrific young running back, needed 33 carries to gain 113 yards (3.4 avg.).

Carson Palmer was all guts standing like a statue in the pocket as Cliff Avril abused young right tackle D.J. Humphries while Michael Bennett and Frank Clark hammered away inside. Palmer was hit a bunch (four sacks, six other knockdowns) but kept his eyes downfield regardless of the punishment.

Perhaps influenced by the machismo evident all over the field, referee Terry McAulay and his crew allowed for the quarterbacks to get knocked around and matchups like Larry Fitzgerald vs. Richard Sherman to unfold without dropping flags and wrecking the night.

The Cardinals’ first downs often would come in a mix of two rushes for six or seven yards and a short completion. The Seahawks had to punt nine times (compared to six for Arizona) because their back, Christine Michael, wasn’t as talented as Johnson and their offensive line was worse.

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At halftime, Carroll ran around the field hugging his Old Guard defenders, almost begging them for another 30 minutes. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner was back and forth to the locker room taking fluids intravenously. Those IV bags probably saved the Seahawks.

In actuality, Carroll needed three more quarters, not two. Nine of his players on defense totaled at least 75 snaps, and four played all 95.

First downs were an achievement. Field position really mattered. There were no turnovers to cheapen the night. Every yard had to earned.

After an overtime exchange of field goals, Palmer stood tall and delivered a strike to little J.J. Nelson in the middle of the field. When Sherman fanned on the tackle safety Kelcie McCray, playing his 91st snap from scrimmage, was all that remained between Nelson and the end zone 25 yards away.

McCray ran 40 yards in 4.55 seconds in 2012; Nelson ran 4.24 in ’15. In almost explicable fashion, McCray chased from the side and clipped Nelson’s heel from behind at the 5, limiting the reception to 40 yards.

Johnson ended up a foot from the front left pylon and winning the game when safety Earl Thomas, playing his 92nd snap, sprinted across the formation and shoved him out of bounds.

On a quick count, Palmer tried to catch Seattle catching its breath. This time, linebacker K.J. Wright sliced unblocked from the side to slow Johnson just enough so Wagner could throw him back frontally for no gain.

“It (the defense) was incredible all night long,” said Carroll, and anyone with appreciation for defense had to agree.

The subsequent bungled kicks will be remembered for coach Bruce Arians slamming down his playsheet and Carroll’s gleeful, then puzzled expressions.

With a Sunday off, I flipped back and forth among the 11 afternoon games. Four or five went down to the last minute, but even in those games there’s a dulling sameness to the NFL product.

The clock never seems to run out. Almost no lead is insurmountable. Quarterbacks and receivers basically do whatever they want against defenses operating with the rule book stacked against them. Fearful of showing emotion, most head coaches stand dour and grim-faced, win or lose.

When I watch the British Open, I want whipping winds and gorse everywhere. When it’s the U.S. Open, give me foot-high rough.

Great players taking on brutal conditions makes for the best in sport.

Wilson and Palmer never threw a touchdown pass but it was wonderful seeing them perform with poise and courage at the risk of injury. It was that rare moment when defense reigned, and the quarterback-leaders of the two teams didn’t give an inch.

The fantasy crowd surely hated Sunday night, and NFL owners probably did, too. But if you get the essence of football, you loved it.

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