Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
Last Thursday, the district court judge Richard Berman vacated handsome hero quarterback Tom Brady’s suspension for alleged involvement in the alleged scandal known as Deflating-Gate. Then on Tuesday, amid the dissipated fumes of Deflating-Gate, ESPN rebooted Spy-On-Other-Teams-Gate, New England’s 2007 taping scandal. This version was darker and edgier than the original, with new tales of backroom chicanery, some of which might have even happened. It’s our job to guess—thank you, modern sports journalism!
And guess we shall, in the fading hours of the 2015 NFL offseason, because guessing was the sport of the summer. We guessed whether a Patriots ballboy had defiled footballs in a Gillette Stadium bathroom. We guessed whether arbitrator Roger Goodell would overturn the discipline issued by commissioner Roger Goodell. And we guessed what the hell “Dorito Dink” meant. Of course, we didn’t call it “guessing” when we opined on these matters; we called it “knowing for an absolute fact and you’re an idiot if you disagree.” But that was a distinction without a difference.
The past week, with victories on both sides of the Patriots PR war, encapsulated the offseason’s widening rift between two camps of NFL fans. On one side, you have football aficionados convinced that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady preside over a pigskin skunkworks so nefarious that it threatens to devolve the mores of society. On the other side, fans of the New England Patriots.
Each camp has a legitimate grievance. Patriots boosters seethed at the nation’s credulous attitude toward the half-truths and outright falsehoods of L’Affaire Dégonflement. Meanwhile, the rest of the country long ago lost patience with a New England fanbase that demands not just championships but abject worship. That’s always the problem for Bostonians. They seek both trophies and respect, and while the league is obligated to hand out the former, it’s all too easy—and too much fun—for rival fans to withhold the latter. The upshot is that loyalists on either end of this divide feel justified in saying, “Those other guys are assholes!”
They’re both right. We’re NFL fans. All of us are assholes. We indulge in a sport that, through repeated head trauma, essentially murders its participants a little bit with every snap of the ball. A rookie Green Bay Packers receiver, Adrian Coxson, retired this week at the age of 24 after a severe concussion in training camp led his doctors to conclude that Coxson’s next hit could kill him. The Packers released Coxson earlier in the preseason by citing him for “failure to disclose physical condition.” Apparently the young receiver was supposed to alert Green Bay that there was a brain inside his skull. (Coxson’s agent protested the failure-to-disclose designation and reached a settlement with the team.) The most notable thing about this story is how un-notable it was—a passing blip in the sports news cycle.
Football is the gladiatorial spectacle of our era. Sometimes I like to imagine that if I lived in Classical Rome, I would have possessed the compassion and morality to steer clear of the Colosseum and its dehumanizing combat. You know, because my timeless soul wouldn’t countenance the cruelty of the barbaric games. The truth is that I would have shown up every Sunday, waving my “STABBUS MAXIMUS” pennant and tuning my transistor radio for an afternoon of action-packed disembowelments. If I’m a pro football fan in 2015, I would have been a people-spearing-each-other’s-bellies fan in 215.
Regardless of what side you take in a given NFL scandal, the true folly is to imagine that the game can somehow be made clean. Every fan is knee-deep in the muck. That’s not to say that the sport is irredeemable, or that it doesn’t have its share of inspiring glories. Football is both savage and beautiful, which is the heart of its appeal. But it’s worth remembering that the internecine battles of today’s NFL will fade, and the only timeless truth is that history will judge us unkindly for our fandom. So even as we fight among ourselves, it’s not a bad idea to remember that we’re assholes, every one of us, and we’re all going to hell in the end. Once in a while, we should break from our squabbles to join arm in arm, fan by fan, as we enjoy this marvelous game and skip merrily toward the inferno.
With that obligatory introspection out of the way, let’s get pumped for another year of smashmouth mushbrain gridiron excitement, America! Wooooo! After a painfully long offseason, the return of meaningful football provides a much-needed salve (except for the players, who are liable to get pretty banged up). So cook up a dish of Yahoo! Answers seven-layer dip, crack open a 24-pack of Mr. & Mrs. T Bloody Mary mix, and settle back into the sport’s intoxicating rhythms of down and distance.
The 2015 season kicks off tonight with a game that might be the most anticipated opener in NFL history. Millions of viewers will tune in to see whether first-year Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler can keep his unit on track despite a depleted secondary. Although head coach Mike Tomlin has publicly expressed faith in Butler, anonymous league sources tell Block & Tackle that the Steelers are keeping the corpse of Dick LeBeau in bio-stasis, should the need arise to reanimate Pittsburgh’s longtime defensive guru.
Meanwhile, the intrigue runs even thicker on the Patriots side. All eyes this evening will be on Ryan Wendell, who must help stabilize New England’s offensive line after starting center Bryan Stork was sidelined with a concussion. And the Pats have their own question marks in the defensive backfield after losing two star cornerbacks from last year’s Super Bowl run, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. With so many storylines to choose from, how will NBC broadcasters Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth place this game in the context of a larger narrative? Well, I’m sure they’ll come up with something. The Block & Tackle prediction: New England 70, Pittsburgh 3.
The average NFL game takes about two hours of broadcast time (not including commercials), and in that span there’s about 11 minutes of live action. This daunting ratio leaves announcers with a lot of time to fill, which is one reason why TV coverage of pro football has developed such a rich argot of cliches. Sure, every sport has its platitudes, but more than most, NFL play-by-play guys are compelled to say something when there’s nothing much to say. In moments like those, commentators dip into the unwritten archive of stock football-broadcasting phrases. Today’s entries in the glossary cover two cliches that share the theme of not liking stuff.
“These two teams don’t like each other.” The message here seems superfluous: The average viewer would have no reason to believe that two opposing teams on the field do like each other, what with the tackling and the shoving. But that’s not the point. This cliche, often used to narrate a scuffle after the whistle, allows an announcer to imply a history between the teams without getting into specifics. In the example above, Joe Buck has no interest in rehashing the bad blood between a playoff-bound Lions squad and an irrelevant Bears club—that background was probably covered pre-game anyway—so he just utters the cliche and adds, as a half-hearted explanation, that the teams are divisional rivals. Buck only has so much storytelling juice for each game, and when it’s all used up, you get “These two teams don’t like each other.”
“He saw something he didn’t like.” One frustration of football announcing is that the exciting buildup to a big play can be ruined by a last-second timeout from the sideline. When a coach ruins the tension by calling time, viewers want an explanation, but it’s not like the guys in the broadcast booth have any idea what was going through the coach’s head. So they cheat by observing that the coach stopped play because he “saw something he didn’t like,” a phrase that sounds vaguely like analysis and has the advantage of always being correct. The cliche is wordy enough to kill a couple of seconds—as Fox’s Kenny Albert demonstrates above—in which time the producers can set up a commercial break or cue a highlight package to fill the lull. Rarely do we find out what exactly a coach saw and disliked on the field, although in this instance, it was later revealed that Andy Reid saw an idiosyncratic Wim Wenders film.
The opening weekend is set to conclude in San Francisco as the 49ers host the back half of the Week 1 Monday Night Football doubleheader. This matchup promises to be an assault on the senses, and not just because Chris Berman will call the game for ESPN. (Last year, Berman also had the late shift on the Monday Night twofer, and he transitioned between somber domestic-violence moralizing and game commentary so seamlessly, you could hardly no—AND THE PUNT IS BLOCKED!) Beyond the aural misery in the booth, there will be a visual mess on the field, too, as the 49ers will use Monday’s game to debut their horrid black alternate uniforms.
Yes, San Francisco is finally jumping on the uni-redesign bandwagon of 12 years ago, fielding players who look like they’ve been dipped in ink. Like all reasonable uniform critics, I’m against these jet-black makeovers, not just because they lack personality but also because they dull the impression of motion that comes across on the screen. The stripes and bright colors of a more traditional uniform kit accentuate the players’ movements, giving the eye an exaggerated sense of the strength and athleticism underneath the clothes. Conversely, swaths of black don’t help bring out motion, they obscure it in a single lump of darkness.
The 49ers’ all-black look is especially ill-advised because it makes the players resemble their Bay Area rivals in Oakland (a fact that’s not lost on the Raiders, who tweaked the 49ers for lifting their aesthetic). Plus, San Francisco already has the best uniforms in the league. Why tinker with them? Well, we know why. An alternate look means another officially licensed line of apparel to sell for $120 a pop in the Levi’s® Stadium pro shop. In essence, the 49ers won’t be wearing jerseys Monday night; they’ll be wearing advertisements for jerseys. The Block & Tackle prediction: San Francisco 23, Minnesota 10.
Probably not, in all honesty. But maybe!
It is said, in the sentence you’re reading right now, that long snappers win championships. An essential cog in the special teams machine, the long snapper is the guy who bends over and launches a football backward through his legs on punts and field goals. That’s his only job, one of the weirdest and most specific among pro athletes.
Not that I have to tell you any of this, Block & Tackle readers. No doubt you’ve followed the heated long-snapper controversies at training camps around the league. Perhaps you were transfixed by Brandon Hartson’s challenge to veteran Greg Warren in Pittsburgh. Or maybe you were drawn to the showdown in Seattle, where the Seahawks’ Clint Gresham had to engage in some long, ferocious snapping to stave off competition from media darling Nate Boyer.
But those are the marquee names. Think you know the rest of the 2015 NFL long snapping corps? Then take our quiz and see how many long snappers you can correctly identify from the clues below!
1. Has been called the “Nolan Ryan of long snappers” for the speed and precision of his long snaps.
2. Was recently congratulated by his punter for successfully inserting a straw into a Capri Sun juice packet.
3. Is named Louis-Philippe Ladouceur.
4. Is a nationally touring comedy magician who, according to his team’s media kit, “endured the murder of his mother by his father at a young age” and “took up magic to help ease his mind throughout the tough times.”
5. Claims to employ “shall we say, an unorthodox grip.”
6. Is not named Louis-Philippe Ladouceur.
7. Became a “cult hero,” says his team bio, after a 2012 game in which he snapped for an entire half with a broken arm.
0-2 correct: Nia Long
3-4 correct: Justin Long
5-6 correct: Howie Long
7 correct: Shelley Long
Here are Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 1 slate. All Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Houston Texans (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Houston 19, Kansas City 17.
Cleveland Browns vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): New York 13, Cleveland 10. Browns backup quarterback Thad Lewis has a great arm, but coaches are still working with him on facing-the-right-direction fundamentals.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Buffalo 24, Indianapolis 21.
Miami Dolphins vs. Washington (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Washington 20, Miami 10.
Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Green Bay 31, Chicago 20.
Carolina Panthers vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Carolina 23, Jacksonville 18. Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano staged a sit-in to protest the unflattering fluorescent lights in the Panthers bathrooms.
Seattle Seahawks vs. St. Louis Rams (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Seattle 21, St. Louis 14.
New Orleans Saints vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Arizona 30, New Orleans 21. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Saints are 10-6 against teams named after cats and 10-10 against teams named after birds.
Detroit Lions vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): San Diego 25, Detroit 19.
Tennessee Titans vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Tampa Bay 14, Tennessee 13.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Oakland Raiders (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Oakland 24, Cincinnati 17. I asked A.V. Club editor-in-chief Josh Modell to come up with a blurb for this game. Here is a transcript of that exchange.
Me: I just need one more joke to finish this column. Give me something for the Cincinnati Bengals against the Oakland Raiders.
Josh: The Raiders are back in Oakland, huh? How long has that been?
Josh: Oh. What is a Raider? A pirate? Who would win in a fight between a tiger and a pirate?
Me: I think it’s clear the tiger would win that one.
Josh: But what if the pirate had a sharp sword?
Me: I knew you were going to play the sword card.
Josh: The sword card! [Leaves room.]
Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Denver 28, Baltimore 27.
New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Dallas 20, New York 16.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons (Monday, 7:10 p.m., ESPN): Philadelphia 9, Atlanta 6.