Block & Tackle previews the coming weekend of NFL football.
Modern football is inherently hypocritical. It’s a game in which we ask large, freakishly strong men to collide at high speeds, but we make them wear helmets while they do it—for safety, you see. The sport is and always has been pervaded by the conflict between its thrilling athletic splendor and its damaging ugliness. Indeed, that mix of grace and repugnance is part of what makes football such an irresistible spectacle. Because of that, conscientious NFL fans must face the specter of pro football’s dark, destructive side. We ask ourselves, is the game worth it?
The people who run the league are supposed to make it easier for fans to answer “yes” to that question. Their job is to mitigate football’s inherent awfulness so that the enterprise is a good thing on the whole. Without the order instilled by the league, football would be a toxic chaos of violence with no set boundaries. Pro football games might break out in the middle of the street. Players would load themselves up with dangerous and exotic drugs, like marijuana. Coaches would wear non-approved sideline apparel. It would be madness, and the country wouldn’t stand for it.
So when Roger Goodell took over as league commissioner in 2006, he cast himself as an avatar of order. Reacting to a spate of off-the-field player scandals that preceded his ascension to the crown, Goodell made it clear that he would be ruthless in punishing players for “conduct” issues. After Pac-Man Jones had yet another run-in with the police at a nightclub, for instance, Goodell suspended Jones for the entire 2007 season. ESPN.com’s report on the suspension featured not just one but two gray-haired white guys waxing idolatrous on Goodell’s “strong signal” and “terrific statement.” You’d think Leopold from The Simpsons had just walked through that door, and the senescent braintrust of NFL punditry did a collective discipline swoon.
It was evident from the beginning, but it’s become even clearer over time that Sheriff Goodell is motivated not by a sense of social order but rather by a self-satisfied paternalism—one that exacerbates football’s worst qualities rather than holding them in check. Sure, if you need someone to throw the book at a black kid who likes to smoke a little weed, Goodell’s your man every time. But when we need someone to properly educate players about the risks of playing football, Goodell encourages us not to worry our pretty little repeatedly concussed heads about it. He would also rather not talk about pitiful cheerleader pay because he is too busy hawking pink jerseys that demonstrate the NFL’s commitment to women.
And now we face the infuriating Ray Rice debacle, in which a player trained, groomed, and exalted by the league used his football-burnished strength to knock his fiancée unconscious. Goodell’s handling of the situation has been a perfect bungling, from the inexplicably light punishment he issued at first to the “investigatory” interview he conducted with Rice’s wife while Rice himself was in the room. The most pitiful moment came this week when the TMZ video emerged and Goodell hurriedly tried to slip back into his Defender Of Justice superhero outfit, struggling to pull the tights over his wingtips as he shouted, “Suspend Ray Rice indefinitely—maybe forever!”
Goodell has attempted to clarify his story this week—he never saw the tape, nobody in the NFL saw the tape, it would have been illegal to see the tape, okay it wouldn’t have been illegal but we still didn’t see it, in fact we never asked for it, not directly at least. I haven’t seen anybody outside of ESPN and official NFL media outlets giving the commish’s ever-evolving narrative much credence. It’s safe to assume a Nixonian level of mendacity from Goodell at this point—appropriately enough, now that he’s in a Nixon-esque fight to preserve his job. And that’s a shame because more than any of America’s other big sports, the popular, violent NFL needs a bulwark of calm sense against its ocean of raging testosterone. Instead, the commissioner is content to go for a swim.
Look, I love football. I love the action, the teamwork, the reward of perseverance. I love the intricacies of the strategy. I love that the league is populated mostly by well-meaning, admirable, and often amusing characters. I love that you can examine the game on so many different scopes—a single play, a drive, a game, a season—and find intellectually stimulating stories to tell. I love football’s rhythm, the build-up of anticipation before each play and the exhilarating “snap” (I love that it’s called a snap) that sends everyone on the field into a frenzy.
In its present incarnation, though, I hate the league, because the NFL has me asking that fundamental question more often: Is football worth it? I’m willing to accept a bit of awfulness and hypocrisy for the sake of a wonderful pastime. I recognize that my passion for the sport is probably more vice than virtue, and I’m okay with that, for now at least. But I make the mental calculation of football good vs. evil more often these days, and the numbers are uncomfortably close; evil might be able to pull off a win in the electoral college. It’s obviously time for Goodell to go, but beyond that, it’s time for the NFL to grow up and recognize that the league’s function isn’t just to grow the game; it’s to protect the game from itself.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is generally understood to be, at best, a control freak whose ego has drained the team of potential from within, and at worst, Jerry Jones. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1995, with the Cowboys on track for their third championship in four years, Jones was widely portrayed as a maverick who did what it takes to win. (This was back when it was still possible to use the term “maverick” unironically.) Nike marketers found Jones to be so likable, or at least tolerable, that they made him the star of a Dallas spoof trumpeting that year’s big Deion Sanders signing.
In the commercial, which can be seen in the viewscreen above, I’m struck by Kevin Smith’s self-mocking turn as “The Gipper.” The Cowboys’ star cornerback for years, Smith had torn his Achilles tendon in the first game of 1995, which made Dallas even more eager to land Deion. It took nerve for Smith to mock a mishap that ended his season. But he already had two Super Bowl rings by then, which makes it easier to laugh at yourself, as does Nike’s money.
The most remarkable thing about the ad is the presence of Jones. Even though ’90s nostalgia has refamiliarized us with America’s most Arsenio decade, it’s hard to recall a time when the NFL audience would embrace the image of Jerry Jones mugging for the camera as a tongue-in-cheek J.R. Ewing. Then again, it’s hard to recall television dreamboat Sasha Mitchell, but he was a thing, too:
Man, George Kennedy’s performance really leapt off the screen, didn’t it?
I bring up the dizzying peak of the Dallas Cowboys’ cultural influence so that younger fans might understand why so many viewers were tickled to see Tony Romo presiding over a fireworks show of interceptions on Sunday. It’s not just because the Cowboys have a knack for failing in spectacular fashion. It’s also because some of us will never forget the days when Jerry Jones was allowed to ride Larry Hagman’s coattails. Oh, and we had to watch Jerry eat pizza backward a couple hundred times, too:
The Block & Tackle “use it in your gas tank to improve mileage” prediction: Tennessee 28, Dallas 22.
“DeAndre Hopkins, Martellus Bennett among early stars of wild Week 2” —Sports Illustrated, 9/15/13
“Week 4 gets wild for NFC West, 49ers” —SB Nation, 9/30/13
“An offensive shootout between the Broncos and Cowboys was the highlight of a wild Week 5 in the NFL” —SB Nation, 10/6/13
“In what was a wild Week 6, Week 7 promises to be just as wacky” —Bleacher Report, 10/16/13
“Did you miss any of the best catches, runs, or defensive plays from a wild Week 9?” —NFL Fanzone, 11/4/13
“A wild Week 10 in the NFL brought some surprises” —Time, 11/11/13
“The regular season is gearing up for what should be a memorable closing month after a wild Week 12 in the NFL” —SB Nation, 11/25/13
“Seven videos that explain a wild Week 14” —NFL.com, 12/9/13
“NFL Turning Point, hosted by Football Night In America’s Dan Patrick, looks back at a wild Week 15” —NBC Sports, 12/18/13
“A wild Week 16 sets up a Week 17 in which many coaches will have no choice but to keep starters on the field” —ESPN.com, 12/22/13
“Nine takeaways from a wild Week 17” —NFL.com, 12/30/13
“After a wild Week 1 in the NFL, much of the landscape has shifted” —Bleacher Report, 9/8/14
In the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, national columnists like Michael Wilbon and Rick Reilly wrote paeans to Larry Fitzgerald Sr., a sportswriter for a small Twin Cities newspaper who also happens to be the father of Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The elder Fitzgerald made a big to-do about maintaining his reportorial objectivity, a notion that sports reporters loved because it provided a chance to gas on about the nobility of their craft and The Way Things Should Be Done. Then Slate’s Josh Levin, apparently the only person who bothered to read Fitzgerald’s work, discovered that the vaunted reporter was indeed a total homer after all, and Levin’s article marked the moment when Larry Fitzgerald’s dad began to become less cute.
Fitzgerald The First resurfaced this week when he used his Twitter account to complain about his son’s lack of targets in the Cardinals’ first game—Fitzgerald had one catch for 22 yards in Sunday’s win against the Chargers. This outburst forced Larry Jr. to distance himself from his father’s “inflammatory” remarks. “Disavowing your parents’ tweets” is the new “hiding your parents’ political comment-thread arguments from your Facebook feed.”
Note that Fitzgerald is quick to remind followers that his only concern is winning on Sunday (despite the fact that he’s tweeting in regard to a different concern). He says this so that commentators won’t deem this affair a “distraction,” which is the NFL world’s breathtakingly reductive term for any outside force that might cause players to consider something other than football.
Fitzgerald probably addressed his familial flare-up swiftly enough to keep it at acceptable “potential distraction” levels. Fitzgate pales in comparison to Ray Rice’s awesome distracting powers, though, which have been deemed so potent that an NFL Total Access panel this week concluded that Rice’s downfall will actually distract the Ravens’ opponents even more than the Ravens themselves. So the distraction is spreading, and it may be time to address the alarming possibility that the focus-stealing effects of Rice’s suspension could spread to other sports. Maybe the question we really should be asking is, “How will the societal implications of the Ray Rice suspension impact the Detroit Tigers in their AL Central pennant race?” As for the Cardinals, they’ll be fine. The Block & Tackle “enclose it along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope” prediction: Arizona 24, New York 21.
Fox is the only network that dramatically overhauled its on-screen graphics this year (not counting the new CBS/NFL Network Thursday Night Football look). The new, cleaner Fox style is a marked improvement. It typically takes a few years for computer/smartphone interface design trends to filter down to TV, and here we’re seeing touches of the “flat design” movement make their way into Fox’s aesthetic.
The new score bug, known as the “Fox Box,” is tighter, more readable, and altogether more pleasant than last year’s model, seen directly above, which looked like it belonged on the center console in a Chrysler minivan—how Fox created such a convincing facsimile of cheap plastic chrome is beyond me.
The typeface is surprisingly sophisticated, too, given Fox’s recent tendency to borrow fonts exclusively from 10-year-old first-person shooters. I mean, just look at the ampersand. It’s positively elegant, as an ampersand should be. I still don’t get the point of that on-field arrow, though. The down and distance are already listed in the score bug, so the arrow only serves to tell us which way the offense is going—information that a viewer who’s even passingly familiar with human anatomy should be able to deduce by looking at the players on the field.
CBS, meanwhile, has made no notable changes to its score bug, seen here adorning a shot of the Miami tourism board. But after seeing Fox’s newly compact bug, CBS’ treatment feels too big. It’s time for the full-width bar to go away for good—Fox abandoned it a few years ago—because it effectively compresses the height of the viewable image, constricting the broadcast to what is practically a super-widescreen format. Football is well suited to the 16:9 viewing window, and network branding shouldn’t interfere with that. (That said, I do wish that Fox would move its bug around so it’s always behind the offense—as CBS used to do when it used a box-style bug—rather than always keeping it in the upper left.)
If Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell were a character from Girls, which character from Girls would he be?
In Carl Barks’ Donald Duck story “Flip Decision,” Donald encounters a crackpot professor who extols the miracles of “flipism,” a philosophy in which all decisions are made by the toss of a coin. CBS color commentator Trent Green practiced his own variant of flipism as he mulled coin-toss strategy at the beginning of the New England-Miami game on Sunday. Watch how, with the gentlest prompting from Gumbel, Green flips his viewpoint to the opposite of what he was saying just moments ago.
Greg Gumbel: The Miami Dolphins won the toss, and they have chosen to defer [their kick/receive option to the second half], which means that the Patriots will get hold of the football first. […]
Trent Green: Well, it’s interesting, you know. You’re putting your defense on the field first. I understand why coaches make that decision, but as an offense, if you’re [Miami quarterback] Ryan Tannehill, you want the ball. Especially with this new offense, these new weapons. You want the ball right away. And Tom Brady, believe me, he’s excited to be getting the ball first, so—so this plays right into the Patriots’ hands. It’s a good challenge for the Dolphins defense coming out, first series.
GG: On the other hand, if you stop the opposition right off the bat, that’s a little momentum boost, right?
TG: It’s definitely a lift for the—not only a lift for the crowd, a lift for your sidelines, and you’re going to give your offense better field position.
Thus Green reached the broader conclusion that both approaches to the “take the ball or defer” dilemma can be effective, as long as your team plays better than the other team. That’s the beauty of TV-commentator flipism: Because you choose every possible answer, you always end up on the right answer. Alas, coaches cannot benefit from the Schrödinger’s cat approach favored by Green, as they exist in a singular universe where all possible outcomes collapse into one perceived timeline. So if you’re a head coach looking for the perfect coin-toss strategy, try flipping a coin.
Trent Green’s conception of the space-time continuum, in which all realities have an equal probability of giving your team “momentum,” is not unusual. In fact, NFL reporting contends with alternate-universe theory on a daily basis. Matt Vensel, a journalist with Minnesota’s Star Tribune, invited Patriots coach Bill Belichick on a typical flight of sci-fi fancy this week.
The background: In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Patriots traded the 29th overall pick to the Vikings in exchange for four lower picks in the same draft. The Vikings used their No. 29 pick to select wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, a move that is panning out nicely. The Patriots also got some good players with the picks they got from the Vikings. It seemed like everyone was happy.
Still, the Star Tribune’s Vensel suspects that there’s a parallel universe out there—one in which the Patriots not only kept their pick but also used it to choose the same player the Vikings wanted, Cordarrelle Patterson, who went on to have exactly as much success in the Patriots’ system as he has with the Vikings. He posited the existence of this strange reality to Bill Belichick, who responded with one of those press-conference koans that Block & Tackle praised earlier this year:
“We made the decision based on what we felt was best for our team,” he said. “That’s what we always do. We felt like at that time it would be the best thing for our team, and that’s what we did.”
Since he’s not a regular on the Patriots beat, Vensel may have been unfamiliar with Belichick’s quirky insistence on talking about things that actually happened. So he pressed forward with his line of questioning. If the Patriots had held onto their pick, Vensel wondered, would this have initiated a sequence of events that inevitably culminated in Cordarrelle Patterson becoming a New England Patriot?
“I don’t know. We didn’t hold onto it, so,” he said.
Bill Belichick may not be the most popular coach, but even his detractors must admit that few people could pack so much withering disdain into the word “so.” The Block & Tackle “give it the little blue ‘verified’ checkmark on Twitter” prediction: New England 28, Vikings 17.
Due to an editing mistake by Block & Tackle production staff, the winners and losers in the following game predictions were mistakenly transposed when last week’s B&T column went to press: Minnesota vs. St. Louis, New England vs. Miami, Tennessee vs. Kansas City, Cincninnati vs. Baltimore, Washington vs. Houston, Buffalo vs. Chicago, Carolina vs. Tampa Bay, and San Diego vs. Arizona. We regret the error and appreciate the opportunity to correct the record.
Fan Forum Check-In takes the pulse of fandom, one message board at a time. The Browns Board has “over 10,500 registered members” and claims to be “unique in that the hosted tailgate party near the West Bank of the Flats draws members in from all over the United States, Canada and a regular groups from the U.K. & Europe.” Despite a failed comeback rally that led to a deflating Week 1 loss against the Steelers, board members remain optimistic that other teams can also experience sorrow. Looking forward to the Ravens-Steelers Thursday night tilt, a user by the name of The Gipper (a Gipper-heavy column this week, I know) kicks off a thread in which he handicaps the two teams—literally, if he had his way.
Tonight the Ravens and Steelers play in a Thursday night special. […] And, as normal, I do have a rooting interest in this game: I root for the meat wagon.
And before you pansy asses go off saying that you should never root for someone to get injured, I say: numerous people in the NFL this week are going to be injured. There will even be several that get knocked out for the year. I think the Chiefs had to put 2 players in the IR just this past week. So, it is going to happen, so who better to have it happen to than these two teams.
Even with that fatalistic justification, a couple of board members protest The Gipper’s intention to root for debilitating violence. But not all, as TopDawg31 seconds the motion:
Oh hell yeah when I grew up and learned about football the name of the game was kill the QB.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know that. Given the growing concern for player safety, it’s probably a good thing that they changed the name to “football” at some point. Maybe league executives can be forward-thinking after all.
WalterWhite is the Browns fan who kicks off another thread, “Re-watched the Browns Steelers game…” with an 18-point recap of said game:
I was shitfaced in Heinz Field when I watched it in person, now watching it on TV and here are my notes.
9. Donte Whitner is all bark, absolutely zero bite.
11. Armonty Bryant fucking slammed Big Ben. It was amazing.
14. The fake punt… That’s balls right there.
18. Gilbert burnt twice in the final 30 seconds. Why didn’t they fucking pull his ass earlier? The 20 yard pick up Gilberts dumb fucking ass was 6 yards away and laying on the fucking ground. God what a bum.
I bet WalterWhite has an auto-complete macro for the words “God what a bum.” It’s the most Cleveland Browns-fan phrase he could have used to complete his analysis. But not all Browns fans are so sour. Another user, miktoxic, pulls out to the big picture and calls WalterWhite out on his Cheetos-eating ways:
walter. love you man but you got to realize some things.
these guys are just starting to get back in the rhythm of things after healing from wounds, laying on their couch with kids and just trying to have a normal life. unless you live in the gym and dedicate your life 24/7 365 it might take a month or two to get back into the swing of things. hell it’s not like your bou manziel was in berea doing something to win the starting QB job.
imagine you, after months of eating cheetos getting a call from your manager saying he has aperfect role for you playing a svelt tough guy in a movie starting in a month. you gonna be there in shape?
Damn straight, WalterWhite. Imagine YOU. But my favorite reply in the thread comes from timpiker. He has made 53 posts on The Browns Board, and his avatar is a picture of Chevy Chase from the “Mele Kalikimaka” scene in Christmas Vacation. For his reply, he quotes WalterWhite’s 676-word post in its entirety so that he can add:
America Online: It never really went away.
Here are the rest of Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 2 slate. As a reminder, all Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS): Baltimore 19, Pittsburgh 11. The distraction of Ray Rice will be too much for the Steelers to overcome.
Miami Dolphins vs. Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Miami 21, Buffalo 15. The Bills will be dispirited when they realize that the original dog from the Bush’s baked beans commercials is probably dead by now, so they have been laughing at the corporate-sabotage antics of a replacement dog.
New Orleans Saints vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): New Orleans 26, Cleveland 20.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Washington (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Washington 20, Jacksonville 10. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, Washington is 1-4 against teams named after cats and 6-8 against teams named after birds.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Tennessee 32, Dallas 28. The “Total Ultimate Dallas Opening” offers a tantalizing taste of the Sasha Mitchell-Dack Rambo collaboration we’ve always dreamed of.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., CBS): Cincinnati 28, Atlanta 14.
Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1:00 p.m., Fox): Detroit 23, Carolina 13.
St. Louis Rams vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m, Fox): Tampa Bay more, St. Louis less. Because of an ongoing labor dispute at Raymond James Stadium, nobody will keep score in this game, so the officials will just kinda keep track of who seems to be winning.
Seattle Seahawks vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Seattle 31, San Diego 21.
Houston Texans vs. Oakland Raiders (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Oakland 20, Houston 19. Aside from the Atlanta Falcons, who went 1-7 in away games last year, the Houston Texans are the only team mentioned in this sentence.
New York Jets vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Green Bay 28, New York 14. The Jets’ salary cap woes are so bad that they can’t even sign free-agent fans.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Denver 38, Kansas City 18.
Chicago Bears vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Chicago 24, San Francisco 21. Jared Allen’s standout performance as Sandor Clegane on Game Of Thrones has provided inspiration for his teammates, many of whom aspire to their own careers in HBO prestige dramas.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Indianapolis Colts (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Indianapolis 27, Philadelphia 20.
B&T prediction record last week: 16-0 (16-0 for 2014 season overall)
Unfortunate corrections made: 8