I spent a few weeks in the States recently and I will probably have to spend a few more there in the Betty Ford Clinic as I am hooked on the NFL and US college football. If I could get just a game with a 60-minute play clock and no ads I would watch it 24/7.
Rugby union has become more predictable and less spectator-friendly year on year. The two sports operate in a parallel universe yet the similarities are striking and relevant. It is rugby union that borrows more from the NFL. We learn from their physiological and strength and conditioning programmes. Our athletes carry, pass, run, catch, push, shove, tackle and kick just like their NFL counterparts. All processes from contractual ones through to back office management to psychological conditioning have or will soon follow what happens in America.
What we haven't caught up with yet is the off-field stuff. Widow Twankey and Buttons just aren't in it.
Last February I got myself into a little bit of trouble on Newstalk. I am still annoyed about how things were represented in that episode but am not going to revisit that chapter here or now. The catalyst for it was the news that Michael Sam, the talented defensive end for ol' Mississippi who beat Oklahoma in the 2014 Cotton Bowl, had publicly come out about his sexuality. At that stage it was assumed that Sam would be drafted in the NFL - and so it was a brave announcement to make because apparently there are no other gay men in the NFL.
I had seen Sam play three times in his senior year and he stood out. I thought he would be an early-round draft pick. I did describe him as flamboyant but not in a Liberace type of way. When he sacked someone or made a tackle for a loss, the post-tackle celebration and dance left you in no doubt who had made the tackle. He was demonstrative, not short of talk and his ability matched his after-tackle routines. He was good and he knew he was good and he celebrated accordingly.
The draft came and Sam, as a lot of people had predicted, was picked up by the St Louis Rams, but on a lowly seventh round. Sam signed a four-year deal with the Rams but was cut after the pre-season.
He lost 13 pounds before training started to try and maximise his speed; however, with a 40-yard split of just 4.9 and 10-yard split of 1.75 he just wasn't quick enough - either as an NFL rusher or as a genuine defensive end in a 4-3 formation. Nor was he big enough at 257 pounds or powerful enough in the step up to make it in an NFL 3-4 formation.
They tried him on special teams but he wasn't adaptable enough as someone to cover kick-offs or punts because in practice he did not have the sustained speed which is required for a 50-yard-plus play. On the basis that he did not fit either defensive schemes or couldn't work out on special teams, he lost out to the more versatile Ethan Westbrooks, who could adapt to all positions.
In a league where they would pick Pol Pot if he could make 20 sacks a year, it would seem that Sam didn't make it quite simply because he was not good enough. It happens to thousands of athletes every season in the NFL. Outstanding in their college days, but out looking for a new career after the pre-season.
The Dallas Cowboys brought him into their practice squad despite protests from neocon and religious groups. Sam, despite bigger-than-normal press conferences for the first few weeks of his arrival, only lasted a few weeks and was waived. The Cowboys buried him after less than a month - the consensus view being the same as the Rams. Sam is now a free agent and is waiting for his phone to ring.
The view is that the CFL will pick him up but no offers have been made and NFL still awaits its first openly gay athlete to arrive.
This leads us nicely to Sam's last team. Everyone has probably heard of the Dallas Cowboys, they are America's team. They have a fabled history and an interstellar roster over the last 50 years. Perennial Super Bowl winners and contenders. Tonight they play a fancied Green Bay team in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field and it will be a fascinating game.
Their coach Jason Garrett has got his team to the play-offs for the first time. He has been given an extraordinarily long time to get his team there. Considering his predecessor Wade Phillips got them to this stage three times - the last in 2009 - before he got the Ruud Gullit.
Dallas started strongly this season but couldn't seem to win at home and just when the shepherd's hook was taken out, Dallas would win big on the road. Owner Jerry Jones would then come out and back his man . . . again. Then another horrendous embarrassment at home and the whole process would start over.
Dallas have fabulous resources and a highly talented roster including a phenomenal offensive line. Everyone in the league knows that Garrett is not up to it and they have got to the play-offs in spite of him. He is, it has to be said, gutsy and made some really audacious plays in tight moments during this season.
His star quarterback Tony Romo has the ability and has come through a number of concussions this season (yes indeed) and two back surgeries to get his team in the right position but he has a history of choking in the big games. This just does not help Garrett's situation and so America waits knowing that the Cowboys are good enough to win yet they will fail either tonight or next week or at the final hurdle. It is written. Then the Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and Smith and Wesson saga starts again.
The key point here is how much rope do you cut an average coach when you know the team can do better with a really good coach. Get your coach right and everything will fall into place. Sooner or later, Jerry Jones and Mick Dawson will have to make a decision.
Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have received a significant amount of column inches in the last year. Both of them are serious performers in the NFL. Rice knocked his then fiancée, unconscious in a lift in a hotel and Peterson beat his little son (4) black and blue with a stick.
Neither has shown remorse of the genuine substantiated kind and both have been suspended after well-documented side shows. Rice recently got his indefinite suspension revoked and is now a free agent having been sacked belatedly by the Baltimore Ravens. He is waiting for the phone to ring while his now wife Janay Palmer sits beside him waiting for the new contract and the money to roll in again.
Peterson is a genuine footballing superstar (you don't have to be a nice guy to be a superstar). His case is more interesting. Peterson is aged only 29 and has had six children with a variety of women and was charged last October with using funds from his foundation/charity to pay for an orgy with four women and two relatives in 2011. One of the relatives was his underage brother. This all while he was engaged to his current wife. You just can't make this stuff up.
Peterson earned $12m last year and is playing poker (badly) with his employers (Minnesota Vikings). The powerhouse running back is due in front of a judicial committee in February and again in April of this year.
Despite the admirable works and voices of children's groups and advocates for the protection of women and indeed fans of the Ravens and Vikings who forcefully let their feelings be known about these and other cases, people power only goes so far and commerce and the dollar win out against decency and the collective human spirit. The depressingly familiar theme of redemption and rehabilitation for these appalling creatures will be worked out. I guarantee that both will be playing next season.
The NFL have introduced longer bans for players engaged in domestic violence. A retrospective sop. It is always reactive and months behind when action should have been taken. Remind you of any other august body of procrastinators and wobble bottoms? It has been interesting to note that most of the newsworthy violence in the NFL occurs off the field.
Recently, though, there have been sinister trends. The New Orleans coaching roster were charged with operating a bonus-point system where players received financial incentives for incapacitating the opposition quarterback.
Last week though there was a demonstration of what chills the marrow in this compelling but blighted game. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'veon Bell was playing against the Cincinnati Bengals in a crucial divisional play-off. Pittsburgh won 27-17. Bell went off injured and crucially missed the play-off game against Baltimore the following week in which the Steelers at home played like drains. The loss of Bell though was critical. Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball effectively and lost 30-17 in a spirit-sapping and disappointingly empty display.
Looking back to the Bengals game and the tackle by safety Reggie Nelson bears further scrutiny. The tackle is available to view on YouTube.
What makes it noteworthy is where Bell was hit. The tackle was legal - what makes it disturbing for me is where it was aimed. Now in the NFL, defensive players make their point of contact on the knee joint of just one leg. No attempt to tackle around the two legs, just throw yourself at the lone knee joint, you don't even have to wrap your arms around the leg .Why tackle a player when you can cripple him. Quarterbacks in particular, when their legs are planted ready for the throw, are perfect targets. Why tackle high when you can put the player out for the season and it's legal too. Bell's leg was hyper-extended and his season is over - no sanction for Nelson because his tackle was within the rules - it's just the intent.
I have seen a few tackles like that creeping into rugby. The double tackle, first tackle is high and while the ball carrier is trying to take care of the ball, the second tackle goes in on the knee joint. It's creeping in. Let me know the next time you see it.
Meanwhile in Green Bay, Jason Garrett has a lot on his mind. A tetchy owner, a chokey quarterback, a loaded defence from Green Bay , sub -20 temperatures . . .