Block & Tackle previews the upcoming weekend of NFL football.
I’m a longtime advocate for building up DVR buffer time before you start watching a game. I used to feel guilty about it. For whatever reason, I believed that a “true” fan would watch every moment as it happened, stoically sitting through every commercial break while Denis Leary waxed poetic on the ruggedness of the Ford F-150 for the thousandth time. But then I realized that modern NFL football is designed to be enjoyed on a DVR (or on RedZone, the “just hook it to my veins!” channel). If you wait about 45 minutes to start watching, you can skip commercials for most of the game, and you’ll end up back at live action around the fourth quarter.
There’s the rub—even as I embrace the schedule-bending wonders of modern technology, I still have to be up to speed for that fourth quarter. And as the postseason advances, I have even less tolerance for time-shifting. I find myself enduring more commercial-kickoff-commercial hamburgers of boredom because I need to experience each play in its moment. Watching a game at the same time as millions of other people instills a spirit of community, and a live broadcast heightens the unscripted glory of sports—the sense that you are watching history as it’s being written.
I’d like to say that my football-watching habits are informed by those noble sentiments, but the truth is, like everyone else on earth, I pretend that my viewership has a material effect on the action. On a rational level, I understand that the collective decades of training and preparation by the 22 men on the field are important. But I’m also disturbingly confident that the true difference makers are my “Macho Man” Randy Savage T-shirt and my knack for grunting “Let’s go, boys” at the exact right moment before a pivotal play.
Recently, a bunch of entertaining Bud Light commercials have played off this mindset, casting it as “superstition.” I prefer to view it as an unsolved question of science. I mean, I’ve seen Jurassic Park. Who’s to say that my timely fist-pump won’t, through the vagaries of chaos theory, set off a chain reaction of air currents that produce a gust of wind in Denver, pushing Matt Prater’s kick wide left immediately before he’s eaten by a dinosaur? We don’t have the tools to measure these phenomena.
A healthy denial of your own cosmic impotence is essential for the enjoyment of this upcoming conference championship weekend. To that end, it helps to have a rooting interest. So in this installment of Block & Tackle, I’ll provide a reason to support each of the remaining teams for those whose loyalties aren’t already set. Choose a squad to love this weekend and then exert your will in real time.
(By the way, as I was finishing up this week’s Block & Tackle, Drew Magary posted his weekly Jamboroo column over at Deadspin, in which he also discusses the psychology of DVR football watching—it’s in the air. You should check out Drew’s column this week and every week, because it’s superb.)
San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks — Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern, Fox
These teams hate each other. Usually when two playoff teams hate each other, you’re in for a good contest, but last week’s showdown between the 49ers and the Carolina Panthers made me question that axiom. There was constant “pushing and shoving” after the whistle (because on an NFL field, there’s never just pushing or just shoving—always both) and the scuffles got old fast. It’s like we tuned in for a football game and a kindergarten slapfight broke out. Actually, that would be hugely entertaining, so it was nothing like that.
Maybe the officials should have been more aggressive disciplinarians. But because a personal foul carries a hefty 15-yard penalty, the refs rightly hesitate to call them when both teams are acting like jerks. (It used to be common to see offsetting fouls on both teams until it dawned on league executives that “You are degrading the dignity of the game, and your punishment is nothing” was not the strongest message they could send to players.) The rules need to include some other form of discipline that isn’t as brutal but still reins in the brawlers.
My proposal: Officials should be able to make a belligerent player do 10 push-ups in the middle of the field instead. The crowd would love it—I can already hear them counting off each push-up. “One!” they would say. “Two!” And so forth. Crowds love to count; they’re like that Sesame Street character, Gordon. The spectacle of the compulsory push-ups would be humiliating enough to settle players down, but it would do little to affect the outcome of the game. So if I were league commissioner, you’d be treated to the spectacle of 300-pound linemen doing push-ups on a regular basis, which is one of many reasons I’m not league commissioner. The Block & Tackle “tattoo it on your body in a prominent place” prediction: San Francisco 23, Seattle 20.
Rooting Interest: Seattle Seahawks
You should root for the Seahawks because it’s the egalitarian choice. Of the four remaining playoff teams, only Seattle has never won a Super Bowl. (In fact, the other three franchises all have multiple championships to their credit.) Now, the NFL isn’t a grammar-school field day, so it’s not like the League is supposed to give a Lombardi Trophy to every team that carries an egg on a spoon without dropping it. But you could argue that a “world championship” would mean more to the city of Seattle than it would to San Francisco, Denver, or Boston.
Maybe you don’t care about the people of Seattle, though, since you’re not one of them. So consider this: If the Seahawks win this year, we’ll never have to hear about the 2006 Super Bowl again. That’s the Super Bowl where the Seahawks fell victim to dubious officiating that broke the Pittsburgh Steelers’ way—like one Steelers “touchdown” in which the ball never seemed to cross the goal line. See, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had tried really hard to reach the end zone, and the officiating crew apparently decided that the effort alone was worth six points. It was a touchdown in spirit.
For a couple days after the game, the nation’s hearts were with Seattle. Then Seattle fans kept complaining while everyone else moved on to new concerns, like the independence of Montenegro, the trial operation of the Qingzang Railway in Tibet, and other things that happened in 2006 according to Wikipedia. Seattle fans became known as whiners, and they haven’t stopped whining since. A win in Super Bowl XLVIII would soothe Seattle’s pain and put an end to the outcry for the sake of us all. Or maybe they’ll get jobbed by the refs again, and we’ll all have a chuckle at their expense. So it’s hard to go wrong pulling for Seattle this weekend.
Rooting Interest: San Francisco 49ers
You should root for the 49ers because they have the best uniforms. If you’re one of those people who will watch the Super Bowl primarily for the commercials, consider the fact that San Francisco would give you something pretty to look at between the ads. (As the away team, the 49ers would be wearing their white jerseys in the Super Bowl, but those look almost as sharp as the home unis depicted above.) The 49ers uniform is classic. It looks like football. While other teams revamp their uniforms with swooping lines and sharp-edged accents, San Francisco is content to let its athletes, not the clothes, supply the dynamism. My only beef with this uniform is the use of Nike’s sadly ubiquitous “Flywire” collar, whose shiny stitching looks cheap.
Let’s look at the other contenders’ uniforms, in descending order of attractiveness. The design philosophy for the Seahawks’ duds couldn’t be more different from the 49ers’ approach, yet the result is almost as good. This look embodies some of the worst trends in NFL uniforms, like the monochromatic jersey/pants combination, a techno font, and needless helmet embellishments. But it somehow comes together, as Nike’s designers took care to make the elements flow into each other. Details like the leg piping and the neon whale tail on the sleeve direct your eye around the player’s physique, so that in motion, the players seem to pulse with energy. The color scheme really pops on television, too.
The Patriots’ uniform is not bad, but it could stand some simplification. The stripes at the shoulders add nothing, and the red jersey piping could go, too—it never lines up with the piping on the pants. The real problem with the Patriots is their logo, which looks like a cross between John Kerry and a Castlevania monster. But given that it’s associated with the Patriots’ recent stretch of success—whereas the Pat Patriot era was a time of great sorrow—the modern logo isn’t going anywhere.
The Broncos hired Denver’s most accomplished Microsoft Paint artist to craft this eyesore, which employs a pair of giant parentheses to highlight players’ lower thighs and armpits. Last place.
Broadcast Booth Review: Joe Buck & Troy Aikman
Buck and Aikman are Fox’s lead announcing team, and they do a fine job. I used to dislike Buck, mostly for moments of unbridled stodginess like the Randy Moss “disgusting act” incident, presented here in fabulous YouTube ultra-high definition:
But Buck has eased up over the years. He and Aikman do have their irritating tics, though, like Aikman’s tendency to use the word “defense” as a verb (which is technically fine but sounds dumb). Both announcers also have a body-part fetish, using phrases like “Russell Wilson gets the first down with his legs,” “He’s picking up yardage with his arm,” and—as heard in last week’s San Francisco-Carolina game—“He won the game with his right foot.” (The poor left foot shows up every week and never gets the glory. A real team player.) It’s like Buck and Aikman look out on the field and see nothing but running, leaping cadavers.
Buck’s oddest idiosyncrasy is a little move I call the Joe Buck Turn ’N’ Smirk. During booth shots, when Buck isn’t the one speaking, he feels an urge to acknowledge the viewer’s presence every few seconds. He does this by turning to the camera and tightening the lower half of his face, the same way you acknowledge a co-worker in the elevator when you don’t know his name. My dad was the first one to point this out to me, and since then, we always count the number of Turn ’N’ Smirks Buck executes in a single shot. Buck’s record, by my official tabulation, is six.
The Turn ’N’ Smirks tend to get more peeved and terse as a shot stretches on. Here are three instances of the move, taken from a minute-long stretch in last weekend’s divisional playoff.
Here, Buck isn’t exactly happy to find you joining him in the booth but decides that we all can make the best of this awkward situation.
Joe Buck is annoyed that you’re still here.
Joe Buck would like a little privacy, if you don’t mind.
New England Patriots vs. Denver Broncos — Sunday, 3 p.m. Eastern, CBS
Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana this month. I would give anything for Phil Simms to reel off some “Mile High” jokes during the telecast on Sunday, but I doubt that Simms is a user. As the sweet leaf enters the mainstream, though, it raises the very stupid question (or maybe I just raise this very stupid question): Is your team’s QB a beer guy or a weed guy? Peyton Manning, ever a company man, went on record this week as a Bud Light, Official Beer Of The NFL drinker. I see Eli Manning as a more likely member of the 420 camp. Abstinence-promoting, seven-kid-having Philip Rivers? Beer guy. Russell Wilson, star of NFL Films Presents: Phish And Russell Wilson? That’s a strong maybe for the marijuana side. The Block & Tackle “grant it power of attorney” prediction: New England 41, Denver 34.
Rooting Interest: Denver Broncos
You should root for the Broncos because we don’t want another Dan Marino on our hands. Hall Of Fame quarterback Dan Marino is among the best players never to win a Super Bowl. He deserves to have won a ring, he knows it, and it bugs him. When asked about it a couple years ago, he said there’s “no doubt that that’s the one thing in my life and in sports, just feeling what that would be like—there’s no doubt that there’s some times I think about that, even today.” And you can tell. Marino is the scariest presence on The NFL Today, with a tight face and clipped speech. He’s a simmering kettle of rage, like a less grizzled version of the Old Man from A Christmas Story. Sometimes the kettle bubbles over, like when he flubs a line:
Or when a colleague points out his lack of Super Bowl success:
Good lord, the look Marino gives Boomer Esiason at the end of that clip. Pure murder.
Peyton Manning has a ring. But he has one fewer than his little brother, Eli, who simply is not the all-time great quarterback that Peyton is. Eli’s very good, don’t get me wrong. But Peyton is the kind of field general who mind-fucked the Chargers so bad last weekend that they jumped offsides five times. He practically won the game without even hiking the ball! Meanwhile, Eli is the guy who won his first Super Bowl by hitting a receiver in the head with a football. I don’t know if Eli’s two championships bother Peyton, but I also don’t know how they couldn’t.
When I was 8 years old, a family friend came back from a trip to California and paid a visit to our house. “I couldn’t remember which one of you loves The Price Is Right so much!” she said, and then she handed a personally autographed photo of Bob Barker to my little sister. I forget what happened next because the entire world became a red haze. It still pisses me off that my sister has one more inscribed picture of Bob Barker than I do. And I’m betting that Super Bowl rings matter almost as much to Peyton Manning as game-show-host memorabilia does to me.
Given that Peyton is likely to grace our TV sets for decades after he retires from the field, you have to ask yourself: Do you want to watch a jokey, happy-go-lucky Peyton Manning who’s content with his playing career? Or do you want a bitter Peyton Manning who gazes into the camera with dead-eyed visions of his unfulfilled potential? If you’re on the fence, watch that second Marino clip again: “Wait a minute, I got to a Super Bowl! I got to a Super Bowl!” Haunting.
Rooting Interest: New England Patriots
You should root for the Patriots because Bill Belichick speaks for all of us. I know you probably hate the taciturn Patriots head coach, but hear me out. A couple hundred people forwarded me an inspired article from The Wall Street Journal last week that documented how many times Belichick smiled in his post-game press conferences during the 2013 regular season: seven. Some would view this as a dig at the guy, but I see his grumbling, glowering approach as a virtue. Yes, Belichick regularly shows his disdain for certain elements of the football press. But don’t lie, that makes him just like you. You can’t stand it when some talking head restates the thuddingly obvious? Neither can Belichick. It makes you seethe when the national press leans on an easy narrative that doesn’t fit the facts? Belichick is the same way. It drives him nuts.
The difference is that Belichick is in a position to express his beef, and he does so by composing passive-aggressive Zen koans in response to questions he finds dumb. Here’s the first exchange of his press conference last Saturday, following a game in which the Patriots ran the ball on more than 60 percent of plays:
Q: Was it the plan going into the game to run the ball a bunch?
BB: The plan is to always move the ball and score points. Whatever is the best way to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.
Dumb question, dumber answer. In essence, Belichick makes the smartass remarks that we all make when we’re watching from home. He just makes them with a straight face, so they come off as mean. And they are mean! But also amusing, and that’s worth something. Belichick may not have the panache of his reporter-razzing counterpart in the NBA, Gregg Popovich, but the tense psychodrama of his reporter staredowns is a change of pace from the usual perfunctory presser pabulum.
It’s not like other coaches’ appearances at the podium are carnivals of wonder and delight, after all. Sean Payton tosses handfuls of candy into the crowd! Jim Harbaugh juggles! Andy Reid eats fire! With ranch dressing! No. The vast majority of post-game press conferences are so dull that the non-boring ones become the stuff of legend, like Jim Mora’s “Playoffs?” rant or Dennis Green’s “They are who we thought they were!” meltdown.
So root for Belichick and his team this weekend because while he may be a grump, he’s the only head coach willing to stand up to the cliché factory that too often passes for NFL coverage. In his own twisted way, he speaks for you. Sometimes he even does it with a smile.
Official Official Of The Week: Garth DeFelice
Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week is Garth DeFelice. He’s an umpire on referee Clete Blakeman’s regular-season crew, he wears the number 53, and he doesn’t take no guff from nobody. Near the end of last weekend’s Colts-Patriots contest, New England running back LeGarrette Blount gave a defender an unsporting shove in his facemask after the whistle blew. DeFelice could have thrown a flag, but instead he gave Blount something even more fearsome: the sternest talking-to of his life.
The best part is that DeFelice keeps squawking after Blount has walked away and stopped paying attention—if he ever was paying attention. Blount reacts to this tirade with about as much interest as my cats do when I shout at them to stop climbing on the furniture. LeGarrette Blount knows that he can knock stuff off the bookshelf as much as he wants; he’s still going to get his fish treats later because he’s the cutest halfback in the world, isn’t he? Isn’t he? Congratulations to Garth DeFelice, the official Official Of The Week.
The Ill-Informed Can’t-Miss Pick
It’s time for the Ill-Informed Can’t-Miss Pick, in which I open a chat window and ask an A.V. Club or Onion staffer with little or no knowledge of the NFL to predict the outcome of a game. The staffer is allowed to ask me three questions about the game before making their call. Making this week’s Ill-Informed Pick is Sean O’Neal, news editor of The A.V. Club. The chat transcript follows:
John Teti: First off, to gauge your level of football expertise—if your understanding of NFL football existed in the food chain, what animal would it be?
Sean O’Neal: What are those tiny birds that only exist to eat the gnats off of hippos?
Teti: I have no idea what those are called. That seems like a thing we should know.
O’Neal: Maybe if you spent less time thinking about football, you would have more room for biology. Don’t put my typos in this thing in an attempt to make me look stupid, please.
Teti: I tried to Google it, but got a Yahoo Answers page. That’s Google’s way of saying “I don’t know.”
O’Neal: Anyway, you get the point. I can attach myself to other, stronger football fans and subsist off of their fandom, while making myself marginally useful with encouraging commentary. But I would wither and die on my own.
Teti: Wow, you really put some thought into your football spirit animal.
So, the New England Patriots travel to Denver to play the Broncos this weekend. You can ask three questions about the game, and then you must predict the final score.
O’Neal: Who is Tom Brady dating these days? Is she pretty?
Teti: Tom Brady is married to his wife of seven years, Gisele Bündchen. He has two kids with her.
O’Neal: THAT’S NOT WHAT I ASKED.
Teti: He also has a child from a previous relationship with Bridget Moynahan. Do you want to know any more about Tom Brady’s kids?
O’Neal: No, I’m good. Sounds like he has a very rewarding home life. This is where we get down to brass tacks. Are the Denver Broncos considered an improved team since that time Homer got them as a gift on The Simpsons, and he was like, “Awwwww, the Denver Broncos!”?
Teti: I love this question because it always hits me when I watch that episode. The Broncos actually built a formidable dynasty not long after that episode aired, and they won two Super Bowls. This year, they had a record-setting offense. Peyton Manning threw more NFL touchdowns than any NFL player has ever NFL-ed.
O’Neal: I just read an interview with Peyton Manning’s dad in Esquire where he talked about whipping the shit out of him and his brother with a belt that had “No. 8” stitched on it.
Teti: Holy shit, is that true?
O’Neal: “Get me No. 8,” he’d say, apparently. I read it in Esquire, and they never print information that isn’t true. It’s why I always have a pocket square.
Teti: I just found the article. “I don’t remember using it that much.” THAT MUCH.
O’Neal: Just the average whupping amount.
Teti: Yeah. Don’t want to go overboard or anything.
O’Neal: So, third question. Are there any players on the Patriots with the number 8 on their jersey?
Teti: There aren’t. Punter Ryan Allen wears 6, which could look like an 8 in the madness of the football field. And there is a tight end who wears 88.
O’Neal: But probably no chance that Peyton Manning would see the 8 coming straight for him, causing him to go fetal with terrifying regression into childhood.
Teti: Thankfully, no.
O’Neal: Then I’d have to give it to the Broncos.
Teti: Final score?
O’Neal: 88 to 8.
(Photo of Tom Brady and Stevan Ridley: New England Patriots / David Silverman)