Block & Tackle previews the coming weekend of NFL football.
The NFL will expand its television presence this year as it brings Thursday night games to CBS, addressing the dire shortage of televised football programming. These mid-week matchups force teams to suit up after only three days’ rest, and the fatigue makes for shaggy play on the field. You think you’re grumpy without your morning coffee? Try reporting to work when you’re still waiting for your bones to knit.
So the new TV deal means that the league will feature its sloppiest, most unsafe games in a plum primetime slot. But while the NFL may be content to showcase a second-tier product on the major-network stage, CBS is not, in theory. That’s why the network appointed its flagship broadcasting duo—human piece of toast Jim Nantz and blond person Phil Simms—to the Thursday slate. Nantz and Simms are reviled in some quarters for being unctuous or ignorant. I say, bring on the smarm, the strained metaphors, the bungled calls. Lousy announcing adds a layer to the NFL viewing experience, to the point that it has become an essential part of TV football, like the first-down line and those creepy Sunday Night Football player portraits that look at you and blink.
It’s not that Nantz and Simms are especially bad commentators—they’re above average. Still, their TV personas are often inane. Nantz may be the only person alive who practices congenial blandness as an art form. He’s Bruce Wayne from the 1960s Batman show, minus any sense of camp. Nantz’s Midwestern-country-club affect makes him a security blanket for America’s middle-aged football fans. When they hear his voice, it sounds like it could be 1963 again, and they glimpse a world that isn’t filled with Snapchat and Edward Snowden and that “Anaconda” video.
Simms, meanwhile, is good at breaking down an instant replay, but his thoughts on in-game strategy can be summed up as, “You should punt unless you want to go for it here.” Regardless of the topic, Simms has a knack for malapropisms, and he can turn banal remarks into farcical curios of language. “It’s about the weather,” Simms noted at the beginning of last season’s AFC Championship Game. “Why? ’Cause the weather is not a factor.”
I have affection for Phil Simms; he makes me laugh. He and Nantz aren’t my favorite duo on the NFL On CBS roster—that would be the laid-back, intelligent Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, who recently got a much-deserved promotion—but I like them, and I secretly like all lousy football commentators.
Because where would American sports fans be without the time-honored tradition of looking down our nose at slow-witted play-by-play guys? It’s a pastime within a pastime. Every football viewer pats themselves on the back when they catch a mistake by the broadcast team. “No, Jim, that can’t be intentional grounding,” I might say while sitting alone in my living room, “because the ball went past the line of scrimmage.” Saying this aloud lets me imagine that I could do a better job myself—after all, I split the uprights on THAT call.
But in fairness, at this point the play-by-play guy has spent the last three hours extemporizing on the activities of 22 men as they slam into each other on a patch of grass, while I’ve spent the game conducting a fitful experiment to see if I can extract nose hairs without tweezers. So no, I can’t do Jim Nantz’s job, and yes, I should use one of those electric trimmers.
In any case, the guys with microphones don’t get the last word anymore, so there’s no need to get upset when they screw up. In 2014, the Internet abounds with incisive, knowledgeable football sites that complement and go beyond TV coverage. In this wider context, broadcasters’ authority isn’t what it once was; they’re voices in the crowd like anyone else. And if you think of them that way, their errors and misjudgments seem more benign. So even when you’re stuck listening to an announcer who can’t tell a running back from a halfback, or some tedious homer who’s gushing over Carson Plummer’s throwing arm, just remember that you can rely on the always-accurate, whip-smart writers of the Internet to save the National Footback Log from television’s dumb mistakes.
Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers — Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, CBS
Browns fans are understandably eager to see what they have in Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M star who, judging by media coverage, is the only quarterback ever chosen in the NFL Draft. But for now, Cleveland’s first-string passer is Brian Hoyer, a career backup who finally got a chance to start last year during a stretch when the Browns were essentially chain-smoking quarterbacks. As starter, Hoyer won two games before he was sidelined for the season with a torn ACL, and Cleveland fans are hoping that he can repeat that performance this year—i.e., win two games and then go away forever.
Wary of the public’s eagerness to see Manziel lead the Browns to whatever soul-crushing defeat lies in wait for them this year, head coach Mike Pettine pushed back against the frenzy this week by insisting that he wouldn’t have a “quick hook” for Hoyer. He explained:
“We have his back. We didn’t go with him and just say, ‘Hey, listen. We might do this and see how it goes and after a series, we might switch it back.’ I don’t think you can do that—I know you can’t do that at quarterback.”
Hoyer will get at least two series, then! That must be a confidence-builder for him. Presumably, Pettine also reassured his nominal QB1 that under no circumstances will the Cleveland Browns hand the football to Hoyer and then shout “Psych!” as they yank it back at the last second. And Pettine definitely won’t tell Hoyer that the game is in Cleveland and then sneak everybody out to Pittsburgh while Hoyer’s sleeping, with Pettine holding a finger to his lips in a “Shhh!” gesture the whole time. This kind of thing simply isn’t done. At quarterback.
Years ago, I was the opener at a standup show in New Jersey, the first time I was performing outside New York. It was a two-night gig. At the first show, I learned that my material, which included bits about The $25,000 Pyramid and Antiques Roadshow, played better in Manhattan than in a working-class New Jersey town. So for the second show, I knew I was performing for a crowd that would be counting the minutes until I left, a crummy feeling. I decided that the only option was not to give a shit, and as a result, I thought I was even funnier the second night, although the audience didn’t concur.
Brian Hoyer is now on the “second night” of his own crummy gig, facing thousands of fans who can’t wait for him to vacate the stage. At that level of scrutiny, I don’t know how he can find a way not to give a shit. But I’m rooting for him. The Block & Tackle “take it to the bank” prediction: Pittsburgh 19, Cleveland 10.
Headlines from the Cleveland Browns website in which players and coaches proudly share what they have learned about football so far
Official Official Of The Week
Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week is Todd Prukop. He’s a back judge on referee Carl Cheffers’ crew, he wears the number 30, and he knows exactly where he wants to plant his flag. Last month, as the preseason game between the Bears and the Jaguars was winding down, Prukop wound up and hurled his penalty flag upfield more than 30 yards to mark the spot of an infraction. Maybe Prukop is particular about nailing just the right spot. But if you watch the clip below—and witness the full-body vigor Prukop brings to his flag toss—it looks more like Back Judge #30 is having a little fun pretend moment. He’s thinking, “Whee! I’m former NFC champion quarterback Jake Delhomme!”
As Jon Gruden noted from the ESPN booth, Prukop earns style points for his form. Yet at the end of its flight, the flag flopped harmlessly to the ground, which isn’t exciting at all. The all-time champion for outlandish long-distance flag toss remains Steve Freeman, a back judge who threw a similar 30-yard bomb in a 2010 game. Not only did Freeman match Prukop’s distance, but he also threaded his flag through the facemask of Cowboys quarterback Stephen McGee.
Now that’s showmanship! Next time, Prukop, don’t forget to add a touch of the Freeman razzle-dazzle. Congratulations to Todd Prukop, the official Official Of The Week.
Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox
Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium has a hundred-foot pirate ship, complete with masts and sails, that fires its cannons every time the Bucs score. It’s a spectacular toy, and it would be a fun place to watch a game—a football parallel to the Green Monster seats in Fenway Park. According to the stadium’s Frequently Asked Questions page, you shouldn’t plan to jib those topsails just yet:
How can I sit on the pirate ship during a Bucs game?
The pirate ship is reserved for Bucs personnel. Fans are not permitted to go on it during a game.
It takes some brass to build the most spectacular theme park attraction in the league and then hang a sign on the door that says “STAFF ONLY.” (The stadium does rent the ship for events when Buccaneer employees aren’t around to hog everything for themselves.) If I were a Tampa Bay fan, I would be upset by the implicit bait-and-switch. I would also be upset that the team is relying on the magic head-coaching touch of Lovie Smith to restore Super Bowl glory after a 4-12 year. I would be okay with both of these things, though, if Lovie let me ride the ship. The Block & Tackle “put it down as your emergency contact” prediction: Tampa Bay 21, Carolina 19.
Start ’em or sit ’em?: Your Week 1 fantasize football tips
Having trouble picking the fantasies for your fantasize football lineup this week? Here are some hot expert tips—the tips are hot, not the expert—to help you make those last-minute decisions.
T.Y. Hilton gives you a foot massage: Start. This fantasy deserves a place on any fantasizer’s roster, as the confident hands of go-to Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton (2013 regular season: 82 receptions, 1,083 yards) would do wonders for your aching arches.
Playing as both cornerback and quarterback, you intercept the Eagles’ Nick Foles in the end zone and lead the Jaguars back down the field on a game-winning drive: Sit. Although promising at first, this fantasy will fade down the stretch as you confront the implausibility of Jacksonville trailing by less than a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.
Alone in the locker room with the entire Raiders cheerleading squad, you inspire them to unionize for fairer pay: Start. This fantasy won’t go in the direction you were expecting, but its socially conscious message will leave you feeling like you changed the world for the better.
You’re with Dan Dierdorf, who’s also a doctor for some reason, and you’re searching the empty halls of your high school for the source of an incessant buzzing noise: Sit. This is a dream you had, not a fantasy. For the last time, they aren’t the “same difference.”
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson hangs out with you, nothing in particular, just a couple of best buds chillin’: Start. [Long, blissful sigh.]
San Diego Chargers vs. Arizona Cardinals — Monday, 10:20 p.m., ESPN
As it has for a few years, the league will toss West Coast fans a bone on opening weekend by scheduling two Monday night games, one of which starts later for the Pacific time zone. This also gives viewers in the eastern half of the country the chance to stay up until 2 a.m. watching football, which is wonderful in itself. As that last Week 1 game seeps into Sunday, it will almost feel like football will never end, a welcome sensation after months when it felt like football would never start up again.
I enjoy watching the Chargers because of Philip Rivers. All the great quarterbacks pull off the occasional play that makes you sit up and say, “That’s impossible.” Only Rivers manages this with every pass attempt he makes. It’s inconceivable that the motion of Philip Rivers’ arm—which is less a throw than a disdainful shove of the ball—could produce a functional forward pass. Look at the Google Image results for “Philip Rivers throw” and you can practically hear every throw clattering to the turf, which is amazing given that footballs don’t even clatter when they hit the ground. They make this noise: “thp.”
As for the Cardinals, practically half of their defense has been dismantled by free agency, injury, and the NFL’s draconian drug policy. They will not enjoy Philip Rivers’ throwing motion as much as I do. The Block & Tackle “give it your iCloud password” prediction: San Diego 34, Arizona 24.
If Houston Texans middle linebacker Jeff Tarpinian were a Girls character, which Girls character would he be?
Fan Forum Check-In: New York Jets
Fan Forum Check-In takes the pulse of fandom, one message board at a time. TheGangGreen.com is the self-proclaimed “best New York Jets fan message board.” It has been in operation since some time in the 2000s; the specific year of its founding is too blurry to make out in what I presume is the best logo for a New York Jets fan message board.
With the team decimated by shortsighted salary cap management and lacking a franchise quarterback in Geno Smith, the vibe on TheGangGreen.com is subdued. Sure, there’s the usual fan bravado, but it’s tempered by sad, desperate fits of optimism, like a thread adorably entitled “Secondary Not As Bad As Most Think” or another whose subject line mutters “Geno’s accuracy is his one element that may already be elite” as its author reaches for the hemlock. “I know calling Geno elite at anything right now may seem a little premature,” the fan writes, setting up the rather ludicrous premise that at some point in the future, it will be appropriate to call Geno Smith “elite.”
One thread, with the heading “Top 5 defense, for sure,” kicks off with a five-word post from a user named Barcs, presented here in its entirety:
Loving Rex to be honest
Like a South American butterfly flapping its wings, this puff of verbal nothing develops into a 10-page storm of harassment, invective, and people rolling their eyes at the harassment and invective. Let’s rejoin the action on page five, where MaximusD163 is reacting to a slew of Barcs posts:
Ouch. It literally hurt me to read that, it was like watching a drunk dude bum-rush a cop, only to get the shit literally tazed out of him. Like he’s just laying there in his shit filled pant, twitching.
Hahahahaaaa that is a great visual [green smiley face]
It is a great visual—maybe a bit too reliant on the comedy value of poop, but yes, MaximusD163 knows how to paint a picture. There are other artists in this thread, though, so let’s jump forward again to an extraordinary exchange on page 10. By this point, everyone in the thread is feeling exhausted and vaguely debased by the whole affair, not unlike the process of watching a Jets game. With most of his compatriots heading for the exits, thread-starter Barcs goes meta and attempts to recast his original post as the I’m Still Here of unofficial NFL message boards:
I’m just trying to fit in, man. I swear. People win arguments on this site by personally insulting their opponents and mostly using childish insults. […] I’m learning the ropes here with the ad hominem debate winning mechanism.
I was just joking around, and it should have been OBVIOUS as day. I wasn’t even trying, that was kind of the point. As somebody who enjoys REAL debates, I find the overall lack of intelligent logical debating points in favor of insults to be repulsive on this forum.
Then a user named abyzmul essentially shuts the thread down with a flight of fancy that, as football forum takedowns go, has it all. The psychodrama, the retrograde gender politics, the loving portrayal of minute visual details:
You’re the man on the bus in glorious drag, with a full growth of beard and a prominent adam’s apple.
You’ve now noticed that people are giving you sideways looks and have begun whispering about you. And your performance in this thread is basically you straightening your thrift shop gown, and triumphantly stating, “You are all just hating on me because I found these shoes on sale at Payless before you did!!!”
Without realizing it, abyzmul has written the opening moments of a drag-themed Choose Your Own Adventure novel. “If you touch up your eyeliner while the haters read you, turn to page 22. If you throw shade, turn to page 150.”
By the way, over the course of the thread, a few people do try to start a substantive conversation about the sport of football, but they are quickly drowned out as the best New York Jets message board continues apace.
Uni Critique: Atlanta Falcons
Block & Tackle’s season-long look at the 2014 NFL uniforms begins with the Dirty Birds. Let’s start with that helmet logo. The old falcon logo sported a spindly leg and talons that could plausibly belong to a bird. It wasn’t pretty, but it made visual sense at least. When the team reworked the logo in 2003 to make it angrier—sports logos have only gotten angrier over the past 20 years and may be on the verge of rising up against us—the designers clearly struggled with the leg. You can’t get rid of it, because the whole idea of the logo is that it makes a letter “F.” So instead, they kludged together that chunk of black jutting out in the middle with a couple talons on the end. I have never been able to see that as the bird’s leg; it looks more like the front end of a Toyota Prius is peeking out from the bird-of-prey-shaped garage on Jacquizz Rodger’s head.
Then there’s the uniform itself, which is mostly inoffensive, but so many of the shapes there don’t make sense. The white accents on the sleeve scream “We figured we had to do something here,” which is clumsy enough, but what the hell is happening on the pants? They start off with some tasteful black piping and then oh God the blood why what who. It’s like the pants trying to squeeze out a fart without anyone noticing. It just goes to prove the old design adage: Never use a black stripe and a weird, misshapen red splotch with unsightly stitching on it when a black stripe alone will do.
Here are the rest of Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 1 slate. As a reminder, all Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct.
Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks (last night, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Seattle 17, Green Bay 14. This game already happened by the time you read this, so if you believe in a circular conception of time, consider this a prediction for the next go-round.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Philadelphia 35, Jacksonville 16.
New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Atlanta 30, New Orleans 26. Atlanta has not won a game against another dome team yet this season.
Minnesota Vikings vs. St. Louis Rams (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): St. Louis 20, Minnesota 10. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson is confused with Minnesota wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson less often than you might imagine.
Oakland Raiders vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): New York 24, Oakland 17.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Baltimore 28, Cincinnati 19. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Ravens are 6-3 against teams named after cats and 1-3 against teams named after birds.
Buffalo Bills vs. Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Chicago 21, Buffalo 13. In a fourth-season episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Mac and Frank attempt to make an offer for Jon Bon Jovi’s arena football team, but it doesn’t pan out because, among other reasons, they’re not rich enough. Last month, Jon Bon Jovi was squeezed out of a bid for the Bills because he’s not rich enough. So now he knows how it feels.
Tennessee Titans vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Kansas City 34, Tennessee 17.
Washington vs. Houston Texans (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Washington 27, Houston 20. “Ultimately, O’Brien decided to stay at Penn State citing that it would send a poor message to leave after just one season. After his second season he left Penn State to become the head coach of the Houston Texans.” —Bill O’Brien’s Wikipedia entry.
New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): New England 21, Miami 20.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): San Francisco 45, Dallas 21. I always thought that the first time Terrell Owens celebrated on the Cowboys’ 50-yard-line star was funny, and the second time was like a kid who keeps telling a joke because it got a laugh the first time.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Denver Broncos (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Denver 35, Indianapolis 23. In a strange coincidence, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning used to work for the Indianapolis Colts as a football player.
Detroit Lions vs. New York Giants (Monday, 7:10 p.m., ESPN): Detroit 26, New York 18. New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has won the Dave Campo Memorial Award For Excellence In Sideline Blustering three consecutive times and appears likely to extend his streak this season.