Block & Tackle previews the upcoming weekend of NFL football.
NFL football is both an American pastime and an American vice, and its contradictions make for a fascinating pop-culture spectacle—one with its own mass-media universe and a sprawling cast of characters. Since The A.V. Club loves a good pop-culture spectacle, we’re launching our first football column, Block & Tackle. For the remainder of the postseason, I’ll preview each thrilling weekend of touchdowns, field goals, yardage measurements, commercial breaks right after they just had a commercial break for pete’s sake, and especially punts. If all goes well, the column will return in the fall. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s football to be played right now, and I have hard-hitting analysis to ignore because I want to talk about quarterbacks who wear bolo ties. Let’s get on with it.
When the San Diego Chargers play the Denver Broncos this weekend, they’ll be up against Peyton Manning, a TV commercial actor whose ball-throwing talent has made him the presumptive league MVP. If you watch pre-game analysis on TV, you’re likely to hear that the key for the Chargers is to “keep Peyton Manning off the field.” Since it would break a number of NFL rules to take this advice literally, what the pundits really mean is that San Diego should play slowly. See, the trouble for San Diego is that Denver is full of players who are very good at football. As a result, San Diego wants to play as little football against them as possible. And the best way to do that is to reduce the number of possessions in the game by sustaining long, slow scoring drives.
But most TV people don’t like to say things like “San Diego needs to reduce the number of possessions in Sunday’s game.” That smells like nerd to them. So instead they say, “The Chargers need to keep Peyton Manning off the field!” This recasts football as a lawless king-of-the-mountain scrum rather than the strategic ballet of athletic grace and traumatic head injury that it is. The men who speak of football enjoy the king-of-the-mountain image. It dispenses with complexity to make it seem that the only winning ingredient is testosterone, and the only winning game plan is to have more of it than the other guys.
“Keep Peyton Manning off the field” isn’t bad advice. It’s just one example of a broader rule in mainstream football commentary, which is that talking heads will find the stupidest possible way to express an intelligent idea. This speaks to the glory of pro football, a game of contradictions. It is among the most tactically complex and intellectually challenging sports on earth, yet it exists in a subculture of meatheads. It’s viewed as the ultimate straight-dude pursuit, yet most plays begin with the quarterback lovingly nestling his knuckle against his teammate’s hoisted anus. It’s a game where a grueling battle of muscle-bound titans can be decided by one puny geek’s ability to kick a ball between two big sticks. These contradictions can be infuriating, but I embrace them. They’re the foundation of football’s greatness.
New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks — Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Eastern, Fox
New Orleans coach Sean Payton was asked this week how he’s going to handle the crowd noise at CenturyLink Field. “Their fans are educated,” Payton said. “They understand when to be real loud and when to quiet down.” That sets the bar for “educated” a touch low for my taste, but it’s true that Seattle fans are loud. In its tribute to the so-called “12th Man,” the Seahawks’ website boasts that last month, the crowd noise hit 137.6 decibels. That’s a full 37.6 decibels above the mark labeled “Serious Hearing Damage.” (And only a few decibels short of “Eardrum Rupture.” Something for Seattle to shoot for.)
The 12th Man has acquired an outsized mythos. The Seahawks retired the number “12” in the ’80s, and they fly a “12” flag at the stadium. It’s worth noting that all this pomp exists solely to honor people who are good at screaming “BYAAAAAAAAAAAAHH!” Still, I approve, because quiet fans are worse. When I used to attend Celtics games on a regular basis, I would look forward to the other teams’ free-throw attempts, as it was a chance to boo a player one-on-one—to really get in his head. I mostly attended the games for the booing opportunities, come to think of it.
One evening, after I unleashed an especially lusty boo (all the best boos are “lusty,” and nobody knows why), an investment banker bro in the next row turned around and said, “Are you going to do that all night?” He already knew the answer, or he wouldn’t have asked. The guy and his banker pals left halfway through the second quarter, probably for an incredible night of snorting coke and being very rich. Fine with me. Boo or get out. The Block & Tackle “take it to the bank” prediction: Seattle 30, New Orleans 13.
Official Official Of The Week
Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week is Pete Morelli, who will be the referee for the Colts-Patriots game. He looks like a guy who would rent you a fishing boat. Check out that photo above. Is he signaling a foul on the defense or telling you where the trout are biting today? It’s impossible to tell, aside from the presence of a football field in the background and the fact that Morelli is wearing a football referee’s uniform.
The point is, Morelli’s laid-back style is a contrast to flashier referees who make their calls with theatrical vigor. Your Ed Hochulis. Your Mike Careys. If you put a brick wall next to Mike Carey the instant before he signaled a first down, he would shatter it without even noticing. Such is the power with which Carey wields his yardage-adjudicating fist. Meanwhile, Morelli plays it cool. Hairy arms, though. Congratulations to Pete Morelli, the official Official Of The Week.
Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots (a.k.a. “The Morelli Classic”) — Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Eastern, CBS
This may be the most lopsided game in NFL playoff history. I’m not talking in terms of on-field performance—the Colts have a potent offense that will give an injury-depleted Patriots team everything it can handle. (You could switch the teams in that sentence and it would still be true.) But in terms of quarterback attractiveness, I challenge you to find a game in the NFL annals that is more imbalanced than this one. Here is the quarterback of the Colts, Andrew Luck:
Here is the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady:
I should take this opportunity to note, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’m a Patriots fan, but I would never allow my rooting interest to affect the objective, laboratory-certified insights I present to you. That’s my solemn promise. The Block & Tackle “drink it straight from the carton without even checking the expiration date” prediction: New England 75, Indianapolis -2 (rare “negative safety” called on Indianapolis).
Broadcast Booth Review: Greg Gumbel & Dan Dierdorf
Dan Dierdorf is retiring after he calls Saturday’s game in New England with his longtime broadcast partner, Greg Gumbel. This news has been widely celebrated, and with reason. Dan Dierdorf is more of a conventional-wisdom-bot than a color commentator at this point. And it always sounds like Dierdorf is talking out of his mustache—he doesn’t speak so much as he moistly rustles the words into the microphone.
Still, I’m going to miss him, sort of. I prefer a top-flight color guy, like Cris Collinsworth or Dan Fouts, who can illuminate a play in ways that aren’t immediately evident to an informed viewer. But I’ve also learned to take what color commentators give you, to paraphrase one choice football cliché. If Dan “You Have To Punt Here” Dierdorf is an aging explicator of the obvious, so be it. It’s 2014. There are a hundred websites and podcasts that can give me deeper insights into the game, so the color guy’s role just isn’t as critical anymore. Dierdorf always has a sense of humor about himself, and I would rather watch a game with a friendly, dumb old offensive lineman than with nobody at all.
CBS hasn’t said how it’s going to reshuffle its broadcast crews after Dierdorf leaves, but this team was a good fit. Gumbel has been the perfect partner for Dierdorf, because both of them are a half-step slow on their calls. Gumbel sometimes struggles to get yardages and players right. Maybe he has a lousy spotter on the field. What I like about him, in any case, is that he doesn’t get cute with his language. A first down is a “first down.” An injured leg is just that. Conversely, Jim Nantz, CBS’ lead football announcer, rarely says “first down” anymore. “That’s enough for a first!” Nantz says instead, and injured players are always “out with an ankle” or some such. Stop cutting corners, Nantz. CBS pays you good money to say words like “down” and “injury.”
Gumbel is at his best when he gets excited, because suddenly it sounds like Kermit The Frog is calling the game while somebody tightens his girdle. When television brings me the sound of a giant wheezing amphibian doing play-by-play, I don’t ask for anything more.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers — Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Eastern, Fox
It’s time for the Ill-Informed Can’t-Miss Pick, in which I open a chat window and ask an A.V. Club 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 the inaugural Ill-Informed Pick is Josh Modell, editor-in-chief of The A.V. Club. The chat transcript follows:
John Teti: First, on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your level of football expertise? Where 1 is “never heard of football” and 10 is “Bill Belichick” and 2 is “never heard of Bill Belichick.”
Josh Modell: Well, let me complicate this process by saying that my knowledge of how the game is played is an 8 or 9, but my knowledge of current players and teams is basically non-existent. I couldn’t tell you who won the Super Bowl ever, except for the Green Bay Packers won the first one. Sometimes I recognize names when they bubble up to the mainstream or they’re on SNL, but that’s it.
Teti: That’s excellent. That is plenty ill-informed for our purposes.
Teti: On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers travel to Charlotte to play the Carolina Panthers. You can ask me three questions about the game, and then you must predict the final score.
Modell: Who’s the favorite and by how much? (Is that two questions?)
Teti: I think that counts as one.
Modell: Here is a thing I know about current football, btw: Tim Tebow. That’s a person, right?
Teti: At this moment, San Francisco is favored by 1. So not much help there.
Modell: Hmm. This is toward the end of the season, right? So does the winner of this game go to the Super Bowl?
Teti: The winner of this game goes to the NFC championship game next week—conference championship round that determines the Super Bowl teams.
Modell: Okay, so last question, let me get a little creative. Whose quarterback is uglier?
Teti: This is weird because quarterback ugliness is actually the topic of conversation for my “analysis” of the Colts-Patriots game.
Modell: REALLY? Weird.
Teti: Yes, truly bizarre. You’re extending the theme without even realizing it. This is going to be hard because both the QBs in this matchup are pretty attractive men. Here’s the 49ers QB, Colin Kaepernick:
Here’s Carolina QB Cam Newton:
Modell: Oof, the beard. I instantly like Cam better.
Teti: Kaepernick has different facial hair now, but I don’t know that it’s any better.
Modell: But I’m gonna go with SF as the winner, because that dude probably got toughened up defending that chin spinach, so he can take a hit.
Teti: Okay, excellent reasoning. Final score?
Modell: Oh, I gotta know that, too? 24-17.
Modell: Scored like this: 8 field goals for SF, two touchdowns with missed extra points and a safety for Carolina.
Modell: Wait, does that add up?
Teti: Not for Carolina.
Modell: Two touchdowns with missed extra points, one field goal, and one safety?
Teti: I’m going to go bet that specific outcome in Las Vegas right now.
Modell: You could win a zillion dollars. Those are the actual odds—a zillion to one.
Fan Forum Check-In
Fan Forum Check-In takes the pulse of fandom, one Internet message board at a time. The Green Bay Packers just lost to the 49ers in the playoffs for the second consecutive year, so at the unofficial Packer Forum, fans are licking their wounds. A user by the name of Forget Favre poses this question.
OK so you’re the Packers coach. And let’s say you are about to go out and meet Harbaugh on the field right after the 49ers beat you again in the playoffs. What would you say to him?
Fantasy: I would let my actions speak. I would be so mad at him and his team that I would head out to see him then turn my back on him and head for the locker room.
Real life: I would probably show good sportsmanship, shake his hand, just say, “Good game,” and then walk away. No need to say or do more than that.
El Guapo responds:
Honestly, my fantasy and actual reactions would be the same. I’ve got nothing against Harbaugh except that he’s beaten my team four straight times. That’s a reflection on me, not him.
NOMOFO chimes in (typos uncorrected for verisimilitude):
I disagree. He’s a complete dickheaddd. So is Pete Carrol. These guys are classless scum. They are the worst examples of sportsmanship there is in coaching.
None the less, I would never stoop to their level. I would offer congrats and be done.
So, in the wake of a season-ending loss, Packers fans fantasize about tamping down their rage and politely offering congratulations to the winning coach. I just moved to the Midwest, and I’ve noticed that people around here really get off on suppressing their anger. I mean, Forget Favre’s most indulgent fantasy is to give Jim Harbaugh a nice, firm cold shoulder. And the other posters think that’s going too far! “Whoa, settle down, guy. Harbaugh may be the greatest monster the world of sport has ever witnessed, but you’ve got to offer congrats.” In fairness, though, if a head coach did walk away from an obligatory post-game greeting without shaking the other coach’s hand, the NFL media complex would react as if Barack Obama spit on the pope.
San Diego Chargers vs. Denver Broncos — Sunday, 4:40 p.m. Eastern, CBS
The Chargers’ quarterback, Philip Rivers, is known for his on-field yelling. If I were an NFL quarterback, I’d be intense and vocal like Rivers. When I played soccer in middle school, I was always the dude cheering on the team, trying to keep everyone’s energy up. I would even clap and shout during scrimmages. Look, I was a chubby, awkward, newly pubescent nerd, so this was pretty much my only way to contribute to any athletic enterprise.
One evening, during one of those practice scrimmages, a teammate of mine turned to me and said, “Hey, John. Would you shut the fuck up?” I was so stunned and embarrassed that I walked off the field that night and quit soccer forever. Honest: I have not played in a soccer game since this painful thing that happened when I was 11. Now that I think back on it, and considered in the context of the booing story, I realize that I probably did need to shut the fuck up. But Philip Rivers never shut up, and now he’s a big-time millionaire NFL quarterback. Know hope.
Rivers has also gained a reputation for sporting a bolo tie in his post-game press conferences. He was sporting an especially hideous piece of neckwear after trouncing Cincinnati last weekend, but the official Chargers website reports that there’s a story behind that lump of turquoise. Chargers.com managing editor Ricky Henne has the scoop:
The first time [Rivers] adorned his bolo tie, Chargers fans all across San Diego loved it, and now, football fans all over the country have caught bolo tie fever.
That’s debatable, but proceed, governor:
One such fan who took notice was 76-year old Ted Williams, who stopped by Chargers Park to drop off a bolo tie he made for Rivers. He left it at the front desk and thought there was only a fraction of a chance the star quarterback would ever receive it. Fast forward a week later, Williams finished watching the Chargers’ playoff victory over Cincinnati thinking it was the best Sunday he could have asked for until he witnessed what happened shortly thereafter. Rivers took the podium as he normally does following a game. But this time he adorned the very bolo tie Williams dropped off for him earlier that week.
Not only did this fellow have a handmade present for Philip Rivers, but he went to Chargers headquarters and dropped it off at the front desk himself! Ted Williams sounds like San Diego’s most adorable grandpa. I hope you get the upset you want this weekend, Ted. The Block & Tackle “carry it on your person when you’re walking through a bad neighborhood” prediction: Denver 45, San Diego 34.
(Peyton Manning photo: Denver Broncos/Eric Lars Bakke)