Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
This Monday, citizens will tune in to watch two unlikable opponents face off in a made-for-TV spectacle that ought to cause sober Americans to question our nation’s values: The Atlanta Falcons will play football against the New Orleans Saints. Around the same time, there will be a presidential debate—the nation will consider the difficult choice between, on one side, a competent politician who set up her email wrong, and on the other side, a prick. As the Founders intended, the country will determine who should have the nuclear codes based on which candidate delivers the best pre-written zingers.
The time slot showdown between these must-see events has been a source of angst. In late July, it became the Pointless And Exhausting Controversy Of The Day when Donald Trump complained that the debates were scheduled against NFL action. “Yawp yarm debate yawp football yawp,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, adding, “Yawp yawp yawp yarm yawp.” Trump’s ostensible concern was that the NFL broadcast would depress audience numbers for his grand debate triumph. Trump prefers to depress the audience himself.
In reality, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is the one who should be sweating this schedule conflict, not Trump. As Forbes reports, ESPN’s Monday Night Football ratings have been falling for four years straight, and going up against The End Of Democracy—Part One won’t help matters. NFL regular-season ratings are down across the board, and explanations for the trend range widely. People who are angry at anthem-protester Colin Kaepernick, for instance, say the NFL ratings dip is about him, a theory that—given that the Nielsen numbers were already slipping prior to this year—would seem to require time travel by the 49ers quarterback. And yeah, that sounds far-fetched, but we already know there are no limits to Kaepernick’s evil. He kneeled during a song, after all.
Meanwhile, other people say that the league is simply falling prey to the broader phenomenon of millennials watching less sports, a decline that even hit the supposedly invincible Olympics telecasts this summer. While that interpretation may be “correct” and “supported by data,” I have my own theory for the reason behind Monday Night Football’s woes: It has outlived its usefulness.
Monday Night used to be the flagship NFL broadcast, but now it is a shadow of itself, an also-ran to NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which has better matchups and superior production. One culprit for the sorry state of Monday Night is ESPN’s announcing team, which this season replaced play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico (who departed to NBC) with the somehow even blander Sean McDonough. He is joined by color commentator and hyperventilating Bazooka Joe villain Jon Gruden, who believes that every NFL player is in a first-place tie for Most Underrated Guy In The World.
The clunky dynamic between the soporific McDonough and the sycophantic Gruden was visually encapsulated this week as a blank-faced McDonough stood by while his booth partner throttled him with a pool noodle. This display was intended to demonstrate Gruden’s admiration for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who Gruden deemed the “two-handed monster” for his extraordinary ability to grasp a football with both of his hands.
ESPN produces a shabby product for the screen, too. Above, we see Block & Tackle’s obligatory fake-monstrosity-on-the-field graphic for the week. Monday Night executes the concept with the garish crudity that sets it apart from competitors. In this example, a heroic towel guy ruins the Adobe Illustrator 2.0 drop shadow effect, and Wentz’s right hand vanishes to parts unknown. Be careful with Carson Wentz’s hand, ESPN! He needs it to hold the ball.
I’ve bemoaned the announcing and visuals on ESPN’s NFL coverage before, as I surely will again. This particular Monday, though, is notable for the juxtaposition of the debate, which throws Monday Night Football’s smallness into relief. There’s no doubt: Of course people will watch Hillary vs. Trump instead of Falcons vs. Saints. The unholy symbiosis of Trump and the news media have, insanely, made politics the No. 1 spectator sport of the season, bringing us to a juncture where the fate of the republic turns on a woman’s ability to come off as likable compared to a braying fraud. If there are people who are still more interested in an early-season NFC South matchup—and of course there will be many—they were never going to watch a debate anyway.
It’s good that we care more about civics than football (although in this case our society’s victory is a pyrrhic one). Still, the total irrelevance of Monday Night Football is a recent and telling development. Trump’s feigned worry about the power of Monday Night might have had a superficial truth to it 15 years ago, but now, Monday is the most dispensable part of the NFL schedule. The Thursday game can be equally mediocre, and the short rest is unfair to the players. Yet from a viewer’s point of view, Thursday feels like an appetizer that anticipates the weekend while Monday Night Football is a half-baked dessert that arrives after we’re already full. The show that used to be the climax of the NFL week is now an afterthought.
The league has no interest in solving its oversaturation problem, on account of money, but if the commissioner’s office did want to take a long-term view and consolidate the weekly schedule—so as not to exhaust fans’ interest—the piece to discard would be Monday Night Football. The show’s influence and prestige have faded that far. ESPN’s producers can take some consolation in one thing, however: This Monday, as they broadcast the Falcons and Saints pounding each other into gristle, it’s liable to be the most dignified program on TV.
The Colts are bad. Their coach is bad. Their general manager is bad. Their quarterback is good…? But not all bad teams are created equal. Indianapolis is a fun team to watch if you find yourself browsing the games on Sunday, and here’s why. Each week at practice, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano will periodically whisper in players’ ears, “Lose.” Sometimes he’ll drive to a wide receiver’s home late at night (weather permitting) and crack the bedroom window to murmur his mantra—“Lose”—so that the command might drift into the slumbering Colt’s dreams. Pagano also screams the word into each player’s jersey at point-blank range before they take the field.
These motivational techniques are effective. The Colts show up to each game prepared to lose, and they typically do so for quite some time. But then, as the second half wears on, they awaken from their stupor. Pagano’s psychic grasp slips, even on himself, and he entertains notions of winning. That’s when the Indianapolis Colts start to try, which produces one of two outcomes: They roar back from a huge deficit, or they fail spectacularly. Either way, you get an entertaining finish.
I must admit I’m partial to a crushing Colts loss, but not because I enjoy seeing the Colts suffer. Not only because of that. I also relish any opportunity to observe Chuck Pagano’s league-leading headset-fiddle technique. It is a peculiar habit of many NFL head coaches, in the immediate aftermath of a disastrous play, to fiddle frantically with their headset equipment. I have no idea why. I guess the coaches are stunned that their tactical genius was not properly transmitted to the field, and they blame the gadgetry.
Or perhaps it’s a security blanket. When Denver Broncos linebacker and reigning Super Bowl MVP Von Miller returned a Colts fumble for a game-icing touchdown last Sunday, Pagano’s arm reflexively snapped to the transceiver on his waist. He searched in futility for a signal that might deliver him from his anguished shame: He had dared to dream of victory.
This weekend, Pagano’s Colts host San Diego, a team with a penchant for building a big lead early and then squandering it with comical abandon as the game wears on—the yin to Indy’s yang. Which team will want to lose more? The Block & Tackle prediction: San Diego 23, Indianapolis 15.
This season, the league is running ads to promote NFL Ticket Exchange, the officially sanctioned scalping marketplace. In the commercials, three head coaches don disguises to execute an apparent sting operation against fans who solicited tickets outside the approved channels. The perpetrators are presented as actual people caught on hidden camera, and while I don’t know what the actual setup was here, I do know that these commercials are creepy.
I find it highly off-putting to imagine that an NFL coach would expend time and effort to harass strangers. And yet the footage is edited to make it seem like the poor rubes are experiencing the thrill of a lifetime. “Appreciate you!” chirps one fellow after Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera tricks and humiliates him. Then the tagline sweeps into view: “FOOTBALL IS FAMILY.” Because every strong family is built on a foundation of love, understanding, and ratting each other out to the authorities without the slightest provocation.
Say it or un-weenie hey
You’re not oversaying it
We’ve seen it
a lot but of course we question
If it’s not a part of who you are you
That’s why they don’t do
in the game
—Phillip Montenegro Simms
What’s the old saying Jim
What do they ask you the day after the game
“Did you win or ja lose?”
We don’t care about
the circumstances, they come up here
“N. Tom Brady’s out!”
Half the offense’ll if you win
Its tit, it feels great
—Phillip Lucifus Simms
We’re still in the moment,
people want to say that “it’s a new season!”
and “this!” and “that!”
He says, I still feel like it’s all part of The Same
Well, I believe him
It’s a continuum
You hear it from the crowd, the excitement
This is almost a facsimile
—Phillip Transcariot Simms and James Moot Nantz
While the NFL season is still young, a couple weeks of glory are enough to turn a promising player into a minor myth. When athletes like Philadelphia rookie quarterback Carson Wentz haven’t had time to fail, hope reigns. “Get on the Wentz Wagon,” read one sign in the crowd during the Eagles’ 29-14 domination of the Chicago Bears this week. I support the sign’s foolhardy sentiment. A sensible response to Wentz’s early success would be to wait and see how he develops, but we’re talking about a game where costumed oafs fight over a painted patch of grass—there’s no need to be sensible. Go ahead and fantasize, Philly fans, about the many Lombardi Trophies (eight or more) that Wentz will secure for you. It’s football tradition to ride the weekly swells of narrative in nearsighted bliss.
Nobody is surfing a headier wave of optimism than Minnesota Vikings boosters, as Sam Bradford—the quarterback they just acquired from the Wentz-loving Eagles—has been anointed Minnesota’s savior on the basis of one strong outing. Bradford was beatified by NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth during the Vikings’ Week 2 victory over the Green Bay Packers. “I don’t want to overstate this case, and I don’t like hyperbole,” Collinsworth lied, “but what Sam Bradford is doing tonight is unbelievable.” He mused that maybe the Minnesota Vikings offense is just what Bradford needed, and vice versa. Bradford’s “unbelievable” feat was to help score a whopping 17 points and beat the Packers by a field goal.
Sunday Night Football play-by-play caller Al Michaels betrayed a bemused skepticism during his partner’s Bradford-gasm, but he egged on Collinsworth all the same. Michaels understood: Collinsworth was feeling the high, riding the narrative. And the backstory was irresistible. The Vikings were reeling after their young franchise QB, Teddy Bridgewater, suffered a season-ending injury. It’s a wounded squad. So why not believe that Bradford might lead them to a playoff berth? He hasn’t lost in a Vikings uniform yet, so maybe he never will.
Minnesota certainly hopes that Bradford is everything that Collinsworth cracks him up to be, because the Vikings have also lost star running back Adrian Peterson—for at least the regular season—with a torn meniscus. When Peterson suffered the injury against the Packers, team physicians bizarrely walked him through some sort of lavish eatery on his way to the locker room. This was the first game played at the team’s new U.S. Bank Stadium, so maybe the doctors simply didn’t know how to get around. In any case, their confusion produced the rare spectacle of a child beater being paraded through a restaurant as all the patrons applauded and thought, “I sure hope he’s okay!” The Block & Tackle prediction: Carolina 31, Minnesota 21.
If I were a cheerleader, my greatest fear would be the prospect of being bowled over from behind by one of the giant berserkers who, mere feet from my workplace, recklessly fling their bodies about. But when a Minnesota cheerleader experienced that nightmare scenario courtesy of Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, she didn’t panic. She simply got up (with Munnerlyn’s kind help), gave her head a little shake, and resumed cheering for the very players who had just caused her life to flash before her eyes. Block & Tackle salutes her courageous work ethic.
If undefeated New England Patriots third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett were a Stranger Things character, which Stranger Things character would he be?
Here are Block & Tackle’s “never wrong” final score predictions for the rest of the Week 3 slate. The predictions must not be doubted. They are truth. They are the only truth.
Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS/NFL Network): Patriots 21, Houston 17. Houston forgot that their game was on Thursday this week.
Oakland Raiders vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Oakland 23, Tennessee 20.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Jacksonville 28, Baltimore 21.
Cleveland Browns vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Miami 5, Cleveland 0.
Denver Broncos vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Cin…cin…na…ti 22, Denver 19. I think about this Simpsons gag every week when I do the Cincinnati pick.
Washington vs. New York Giants (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): New York 14, Washington 10. Look out, Washington! The mushed bananas they fed Eli Manning for lunch weren’t mushy enough, so he’s real cranky this week.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Arizona 35, Buffalo 20.
Minnesota Vikings vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Carolina 31, Minnesota 21.
Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Green Bay 24, Detroit 18. Green Bay punter Jake Schum. Still punting. Still shirtless.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Tampa Bay 17, Los Angeles 16.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Seattle 13, San Francisco 9.
New York Jets vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Kansas City 24, New York 20. New York quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the AFC Offensive Player Of The Week (an award presented to the quarterback who faced a Rob Ryan defense that week). But New York wide receiver Eric Decker has his own fashion card.
Chicago Bears vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Dallas 21, Chicago 10.
Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): New Orleans 30, Atlanta 6.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2016 season: 32-0
Untruthful games last week: 9
Untruthful games overall in 2016: 14