Week 7 NFL Wrap-up: Will Football Ever Change?
Date posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012
How the casual fan sees the game.
Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ‘98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Tuesday at Construction.
Note: Sam is off today.
Back when Chuck Klosterman was writing frequently for Esquire, he published an article called “A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.” Starting with the current year, 2008, he makes one prediction for each year for the next 100. In typical Klosterman fashion, his predictions are straight-faced funny1, semi-plausible2, and arbitrarily (anti-) imaginative3. He even predicts the ongoing saga of “a mysterious multiracial seven-foot man who refers to himself only as ‘B’,” shows up at NASA, and is swiftly dealt with by the administration of President Tom Brady. But perhaps his most startling prediction is a different football-themed one, which he assigns to February 20, 2066: “Super Bowl C: Dallas defeats Denver 31-17. The NFL, for whatever reason, is pretty much the same as it always was.”
This prediction, thrown in with a long series of (not totally) absurd proclamations about science, technology, government, and politics, provides benign shock value/relief humor. But, to football fans, it’s also funny for another reason: that it seems plausible, in a ridiculous way. Or maybe it seems ridiculous, but in a plausible way. We’re not sure. Either way, taking a second to closely examine the run-of-the-mill “31-17” score and the modifier “pretty much” (as if to shrug, “What can we do?”), we feel more and more comfortable with the fact that the prediction will prove to be 100 percent accurate. With good luck, I’ll live to see 2066, and I have no doubt that, one Sunday in February of that year, I’ll be watching Leyton Manning II avenge the loss his great-grandfather Peyton suffered in Super Bowl XLIV by a score of—you guessed it—31-17. The team Leyton plays will probably even start his older brother Bradley (or Jay, or Terry, or Jesse) at quarterback. This scenario doesn’t feel outlandish at all, and that makes it a little bit exciting, a little bit goofy, but mainly just sad.
I was able to watch only two NFL games this week: Jets-Patriots and Steelers-Bengals. Both were supposed to be heated divisional matchups, so the NFL gave Steelers-Bengals the nationally-televised Sunday night slot, allowing NBC to send in Costas for an exclusive sit-down with Mike Tomlin (which turned out as politely and inanely cliché-ridden as every Tomlin interview minus the Pittsburgh Dad one), and gave Pats-Jets the 4:15 treatment, paving the way for the Nantz & Simms CBS A-Team (though I’m positive Nantz has been traveling with Brady and Belichick for the last decade). As always, each network amped up its telecast with overly extensive pregame features and Hans Zimmer-esque scores; NBC also continues to refer to the second half of its games as “Act Two” and the final two minutes of regulation as the “Final Act” as if they were Shakespeare. The whole production is set to remind you that there is NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHAT YOU ARE WATCHING RIGHT NOW, even though if you click the remote up or down just one channel you can watch a guy in a suit sell jewelry or the Obama-Romney debate rewind on C-SPAN and easily forget your prime entertainment choice of a moment ago.
Mostly, though, the networks present football this way because they want to trick you into forgetting that what you’re watching this week is the same fucking thing that you watched last week, that you watched last year, that you’ve been watching for the last twenty years, and that you’re going to watch next week, next year, and the rest of your life. And make no mistake, the NFL and its corporate partners are brilliant at tricking you. The league understands that it has basically two target audiences: the die-hard fans, and the casual fans, each of which split into further groups—the die-hard fans that geek over advanced stats vs. the ones that care about position technique and coaching strategy vs. the ones that still tailgate in the parking lot for every home game vs. the ones that know every player and follow the draft and think they’d make good general managers and coordinators because they’re fluent in Madden; the casual fans that go to a small house party every other Sunday afternoon to chat with friends while the game’s on vs. the ones that watch their favorite team because it’s something they’ve always done vs. the ones that tune in to games or check in online during the week because they play fantasy football.4
By making its product a dramatic, social, interactive all-inclusive experience wherein, as mandated by the incessant Bud/Miller/Coors TV commercials, YOU ARE HAVING FUN, the NFL shifts focus away from the fact that the nitty-gritty appeal of its product can be dreary and tedious. A common saying about the sport is that watching football games is exponentially more exciting than watching football practice. But how true is that? On Sunday, when I realized my broke ass non-cable, non-HDTV was gracing me with the epic Jets-Pats, I became giddy over the prospect of three hours of uninterrupted football. My plan was to intricately follow the gameplay so I could write about matchups and strategy and maneuvering and do a real case study in the spirit of all that intellectual football stuff. 15 minutes of real time later, as I watched an aging Tom Brady wildly miss receivers on deepish routes along the sideline, and a mediocre Mark Sanchez complete intermediate touch passes against a laughably bad pass defense, I said, “Fuck this game,” and started assembling one of those Ikea storage drawer chest things that had been sitting in a cardboard box under my futon couch thing since May.
The NFL is predicated on a game, and sometimes games are intolerably boring.
When you follow the NFL, you tend to forget that it is, at its heart, predicated on a game, and that sometimes games are intolerably boring, even when the best players in the world are involved. As viewers, our bet is that that usually won’t happen, that Brady will demonstrate why he’s one of the all-time best players nearly every time he plays. But even if he maximizes his greatness, that viewing in terms of minutes is quite limited. The best part of watching Michael Jordan in his prime was that you could watch the best player in the world play so so so much—48 minutes a game, 82 games a year, plus playoffs, the ball in his hands every single play. On the other hand, watching Peyton Manning in his prime boiled down to maybe 12 possessions per game, some inevitably short-lived and wasteful; and it’s not uncommon for a quarterback to spend forty minutes of real time without playing a meaningful down, in which time you’ve learned how to juice a Toyota Tundra with more power than a space shuttle. (And forget about star defenders. Watching Ray Lewis in his prime, you don’t even notice him until after he’s made the tackle; and the whole point of a star cornerback like Deion Sanders was that the less you saw him on TV, the better he was playing.) Stars of course dominate the NFL landscape like they do any other sport, but such limited exposure makes it an absolute necessity that NFL stars become entangled in narrative (hence the brilliance of the late Steve Sabol), even when they’re sucking (like Brady for most of Sunday) or when they probably suck in the first place and you know will ultimately blow it in the end (like Sanchez, who could not hold back an atrocious interception late in the game).
The weird thing is that while the NFL is breathlessly explaining that what you’re watching is a thousand times more interesting and different than it’s ever been, even though your eyes and brain are signaling that that’s not true in the slightest, there’s a truism about the NFL occurring on a parallel plane on the gameplay/strategy level. It’s that the NFL actually has been changing. Contemporary anti-pass defense rules, primarily “illegal contact,” in conjunction with the NFL’s well-intentioned (but absurdly hypocritical) pursuit of making the game safer, have led to an influx of passing. 300+ yard games, once a box-score shocker, are the norm to the point that, at the beginning of this season, Peter King dangled the proposition of the 6,000-yard passer. A byproduct of this is the changing nature of positions like running back, wide receiver, tight end, defensive lineman, and left tackle. This also affects defensive schemes, fundamental tenets of coaching (e.g. passing on fourth-and-one out of empty set shotgun), and salary structures. The NFL of 2012 barely resembles the NFL of 1972, when the Dolphins went undefeated and won the Super Bowl with their quarterbacks completing 55.6 percent of their passes for 160 yards per game and 17 touchdowns.5
But can any of this be gleaned from simply watching a game? Absolutely not. The only reason I know about this stuff is because I am in the segment of (relatively) die-hard fans that keeps up with trends and enjoys a more nuanced approach to the game. Modern football includes so many predetermined variables (as opposed to basketball, hockey, and soccer, where the variables are mainly instinctual) that it is ripe for the sort of intellectual study into which someone like the great football writer and thinker Dr. Z has always invested his energies. Out of Z’s general mold arise savants like Greg Cosell (who literally refuses to evaluate players on the abstract—but fan favorite—qualities of “competitiveness” and “mental toughness”) and former Raiders General Manager Mike Lombardi (who recently openly made fun of teams that employ fullbacks), two guys who use podcasts and TV shows like NFL Matchup and Inside the NFL to break down tape like scouts and disseminate their high conceptual insider knowledge. Unquestionably, there is a public market for such information; why else would the NFL have decided, this year, to grant fans access to game replays via the “All-22” camera angles?
Despite being equipped with all this knowledge, however, we still don’t know how to decode and properly analyze what we see. As Lombardi has written about the All-22 camera angles,
If personnel people working in the league are going to misinterpret the source material, how is a die-hard fan going to meaningfully analyze a play and a player’s role in it? And if there is schism between the game and the die-hard fan’s understanding of it, when the casual fan watches a game, what do we expect him to see?6
The only way to notice change in the NFL is to have a writer or announcer or luminary inform you there’s been one. Armed with this knowledge, you might explain to your sister, who watches a football game if someone else is, “Hey, see how receivers catch more passes than they used to? That’s because of X, which itself happened because of Y, and it’s changing everything about sport.”
“Yeah, maybe I did notice that,” she’ll nod, thoroughly unconvinced. By the time she turns back to the TV, it’ll be 2066, and the Cowboys will be beating the Broncos 31-17.
- “NOV. 2, 2040: Dana Dukakis (D-New Jersey) becomes the first open hermaphrodite to win a gubernatorial election.”
- “JUNE 14, 2024: Chinese researchers find a cure for AIDS.”
- “2052 TO 2055: No recorded history.”
- Fantasy football has been an incredible boon to the league—it’s visually off-putting to watch a game clip from before the networks started showing in-game statistics for players from other games—and has helped the NFL appeal across gender lines, as has the league’s exploitation of breast cancer awareness month. Each October since 2009, the NFL has fetishized the disease by outfitting its hulking, ultra-athletic macho stars with bright pink towels and gloves and arm sleeves and by creating an entire line of bright pink apparel that fans can purchase at the official NFL Shop. Of course, only 5 percent of sales from this apparel get donated to the American Cancer Society.
- Contrast them with the 18-1 2007 Patriots, whose QB (Tom Brady, of course!) completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 300 yards per game and 50 touchdowns . . . during the regular season.
- During the silly Jets-Pats game I’ve referred to so many times already, there was a play where Rob Gronkowski, lined upright on the right side, sprinted seven yards from scrimmage, engaged the defender, created separation, pivoted and ran to his left, and immediately caught a pass and got tackled. It was a routine play, unremarkable to the viewer except for one aspect: the praise Phil Simms heaped on Gronkowski. What Simms saw was Gronkowski’s sleek footwork, his subtle use of his hands and leverage, his precise timing to turn for the ball, his understanding of how to use his body to shield the defender, and the hours upon hours The Gronk spent in the weight room and on the practice field to ensure that, on this play, he executed in complete synchronicity with Tom Brady, who no doubt was relying on his own, different skill set, in order to complete the equation. But Simms saw that because he won two Super Bowls playing quarterback. What I expect most of the Northeast Corridor and the rest of the country saw was a massive and robotic ogre-looking human running, crashing, catching, falling.