Sunday, January 17, 2010

NFL Wild Card Weekend: Cultural History and Murder Fantasies

It's NFL playoffs time, the wonderful five-week stretch of the year where telling our significant others that "every game is important" isn't a terrible lie and where three of those weekends feature two days back to back with perfect excuses to drink constantly and grill something that used to be alive, hopefully at the same time.

I originally planned to live-blog all four games of the wild card weekend until about halfway through the first one, where I realized the attempt would make me kill something and try to grill it just to break the frustration. Three of the four games were painful to watch.

Two reasons for that jump out:

1. Three of them were basically blowouts.
Blowouts rule when your team's doing them, but there's nothing fun about them if you're a neutral watcher. You have to feel some stake in it, like deeply loathing one of the teams or QBs. Of course, the announcers can't do this, and since it's the playoffs, nobody really goes daffily off-script talking about whatever occurrs to them. We have to take these very seriously and speculate baselessly about coming seasons for each franchise; losing focus is not an option. Thus the NFL wild card weekend turned into something like nine hours of quasi-indifferent solemnity, like being stuck at consecutive funerals for three bosses killed in some mass grilling mishap.

Even if you don't know anything about football, you know what this is from the hours of grainy nostalgic promotional footage you've accidentally seen throughout your life. You know, fat midwesterners in crew cuts breaking games open three yards at a time while John Facenda unironically tries to liken a bunch of Polish- and German-Americans' facing off against each other to something tasteful and appropriate, like World War Two.

Ball control offenses prefer exactly what the name implies. They keep the ball. Doing anything profitable with it is a hoped-for by-product. Mostly they run the ball a lot and stop you from passing, and then the fat midwestern children of the fat midwesterners who created these playing schemes stand at podia after the game and say "DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS" while nodding and making their three chins dance.

Here's all you need to know about ball-control football: it's boring as shit. Seriously, this was your granddad's football. Are you going to watch that? Fuck no. Think of all the other stuff your granddad liked. It's fucking garbage. He drank beer that tasted like seltzer water filtered through a loaf of white bread and with less alcohol content than snorting the area where the nurse swabs you before giving you the shot. His idea of coffee ran the flavor gamut between motor oil and "accidentally putting your fingers in your mouth after cleaning the gutters." Look at what he ate. He supped heartily in America before flavor was discovered — some incomprehensible wasteland where good food was covered in brown liquid, and despite the fact that everything tasted like corn-starched-consomm√© shit, even hot women had gigantic asses anyway. Hell, he probably even thought the clitoris was just something medics thought up to scare GIs going on leave.

The only good things your granddad liked that are still awesome are liquor, smokes, getting laid and shooting Krauts and Japs. Unless he sat out the war. In which case, fuck your candyass family. And don't even try to give me the car thing. That was stupid. "Yeaaaahhh, the new Buick is a beaut. I love the lines on this thing. You know what I like even better? The complete lack of restraints in this interior riddled with metal and wood spikes all over the fucking place." Yeah, good going, granddad. Way to survive three years shooting down Stukkas over Italy only to get home and die of "high-impact car stabbing" on the BQE. Idiot.

Face it, subsequent generations have vastly improved cars, getting laid and football. Only for some reason we nostalgically cling to this idea of ball-control football as somehow more special because it's purer football. It's the essence of football. But there's a reason why this is the purer origin of football: the people playing weren't very good at it. When people sucked at passing and running routes, played both offense and defense, smoked in the locker room and spent the offseason selling cars that murdered your family, they had to play purer football for the very smart reason that it was harder to fuck up. Thus when you see a modern team playing ball-control football, it's like seeing a sign that says, "You know, next to other teams in the league, we kind of suck at this."

And that's fine. That's a way to win. Those teams know their strengths and limitations and play to them. If it's my team winning championships with it, I totally won't care. Just don't tell me it's better, because it isn't. Don't tell me the best writing in "Flowers for Algernon" can be found in the bits where he's a retard. That's just a gimmick, and it's depressing, because he's dumb.

You know what else is depressing?—watching a professional football team (Jets) where the quarterback (Mark Sanchez) cannot throw to the left side of the field (HERE BE DRAGONS). It's tiresome to watch a solid defense and solid running game (Ravens) being led by an animate pair of eyebrows named Joe Flacco who has some bi-performance disorder where he goes from strangely unstoppable force (Sylar) to some cartoonish incompetent (Bert the Muppet) who can barely heave the ball 10 feet for a screen pass without fucking up. It's depressing watching Tom Brady degrade into the same thing, only with a butt-chin. Finally, watching the Cowboys achieve any success without immediate heartbreaking comeuppance at the last moment is profoundly depressing.

Anyway, this is just a roundabout explanation for why the attempt at liveblogging this junk got scrapped about two quarters in. I still wrote some things down, so for the sake of finishing the much smaller exercise I wound up committing to, here are some assorted reactions to NFL Wild Card Weekend:

New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals
If you're not following Ocho Cinco on Twitter, you're missing out, because they just showed his new vehicle, and apparently the dude owns a fucking tank.

NBC only has one announcing crew during the regular season, so during the playoffs they have to scramble to fill a B-team, and this year they manage to outdo themselves in failure, pairing up Joe Theismann and Joe Gibbs. Now, first of all this is dumb because Theismann learned everything he knows at Gibbs' feet, so having the both of them in the booth is like asking a father-and-son team of Amish blacksmiths how they'd make a plowshare. There's literally no way they're going to disagree, so you're paying twice for the same amount of folk wisdom. Second, it's dumb because Theismann wasn't a particularly brilliant quarterback to begin with, and Joe Gibbs came out of retirement to completely suck. NBC's all but announcing to their audience that what they're hearing is either 20 years out of date or just 10 years out of date and mediocre regardless. I mean, say what you will about the accomplishments of both men, but the game has changed fundamentally in a way that's left both behind. It's like casting Wendell Wilkie and William Howard Taft as political experts on a show about how to win the 2012 Republican primary. Theoretically it's interesting, but it's still dumb as hell.

Here's the thing, beyond the whole "expertise" thing, Theismann hasn't been gone long enough for America to forget he's a tedious narcissist incapable of processing things he observes into digestible thoughts. Theismann spent a dozen years on ESPN interrupting the flow of the game to brag about how deep he could still pump the pigskin, even when it had fuck-all to do with anything on the field, and he always had a preternatural ability to go on long disquisitions about why certain types of plays would NEVER WORK only to have the team execute them perfectly and send him backpedaling hilariously. In typical fashion, in the fourth quarter, he spends about two minutes explaining how one Jets rusher ALWAYS runs left and how the other ALWAYS runs right, and on the very next play, the one who goes left goes right (or vice versa) and everyone in the booth pauses for a second to wait for him to acknowledge it before someone bails him out by changing the subject.

Mark Sanchez has a heating box. He actually has a box for keeping his helmet hot. This is his hot box. I love Mark Sanchez's hot box. That said, if Sanchez had even 1/100th of a molecule of humor in his body, he would have had a chafing dish of hot dogs and a stack of buns steaming in there, but nope. Nothing.

Cincinnati's coach Marvin Lewis and Jets' Jabba the Hutt Rex Ryan throw the challenge flag three times in the first 14 minutes of the game. Two of these challenges are explicitly moronic, one is pretty decent. Guess which challenge Joe is talking about:
THEISMANN: Marvin Lewis has made two challenges; that's a good challenge.
(It isn't.)

Jay Feely keeps nailing field goals, and his offensive line keeps pushing him back five yards with false start penalties. This is how you'd write the story of Sisyphus for modern men.

It takes me a while to figure out what's bothering me, but listening to Joe Gibbs is like listening to Winnie the Pooh call the game. He's got his little chipmunk face and his chipmunk cheeks and beady eyes and tiny rat-body, and you expect him to make some desperate squeaking noise, but instead you get this soft tone that's still extremely high pitched. I spend the rest of the game hoping he'd rage out like this.

Ahahahaha someone in command of large amounts of money put John Travolta in a movie again, and someone else in a position of authority said, "Wait a minute. What if he were bald?"

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
In typical fashion, Cowboys fans boo getting assessed a penalty for a player's nearly trying to take a defenseless receiver's head off. Sometimes I wonder if any other fanbase works as hard to convince others of the validity of the stereotypes about them. They would have cheered harder only if the tackler was a fat white man and the receiver a Mexican.

Ahahaha! Donovan McNabb, who's a guaranteed Hall of Famer whenever he retires, is just shitting the bed completely, so of course Michael Vick comes in and throws a TD on one play — the same Michael Vick who plays quarterback like he thinks the receiver can still get half the yardage if he catches the ball on the first bounce. Yeah, that guy. Vick throws the ball about 15 feet, and the receiver takes off 76 yards for the score. Vick chest-bumps and looks at the Cowboys all, "My bite is worse than my bark" and makes a choking gesture. See, that's funny because he murdered shitloads of dogs.

Try to imagine being a fan of Michael Vick. Try to imagine what it's like to be a person who has to employ the train of thought, "Look, the hangings, starvings, exposure deaths, emotional and physical torture and rape stands aside...."

Hey, speaking of which, you know what would be cool? If someone murdered Tony Romo. If someone in the game literally made him die. Also if it sounded like it hurt.

Speaking of Dallas QBs and Donovan McNabb being a guaranteed Hall of Famer, have you ever looked at his numbers compared to Troy Aikman's? They're stellar. Once you account for the fact that McNabb played and plays in an era with much more parity and without the privilege of just throwing money at free agents to build a team, he's outstanding. Of course, the one thing that sabotages this train of thought is the fact that Brad Johnson has better career numbers than Troy Aikman. I really like McNabb and don't want to lessen him comparatively, but maybe we want to begin considering that Aikman might have been much shittier after all.

Hey, we're NBC. Do you know why we think things like, "Hiring Theismann and Gibbs is a good idea"? Just listen to this promo for the Cowboy's team, using the theme song from an obnoxious and terribly overrated soap opera that hasn't been on the air for 18 years and is only culturally relevant for one gimmick season cliffhanger, one atrociously stupid seasons-long retcon of their own writing and the fact that it was on the air before America discovered that TV quality could evolve beyond the spectrum of "Shitty-to-Mediocre." This is literally the cleverest NBC gets.

Taking a 10-second sports factoid and inflating it to a bloated and faux-weighty dramatic two minutes, Sanctimonious Sports Midget Bob Costas explains how the Jets last won the Super Bowl when they beat the Colts in Super Bowl III and thus legitimized all those old AFL teams as real competitors. Then he goes on to outline all the possible playoff game scenarios, mentioning that, If the Patriots beat the Ravens, then the Jets would face... the Colts... just like Super Bowl III. Amazing, no? NO. FUCK YOU, SHUT UP. NICE TRENCHANT INSIGHT, YOU MONKEYMOUTHED JACKASS, THANKS FOR READING A SCREEN AT A CAMERA WITH A BUNCH OF HUFFY DRAMA, YOU INANELY PORTENTOUS AND STUNTED DWEEB, FINISH DYING OF CHILD POLIO ALREADY.

Watching the Eagles play this game is like watching someone with diabetes funneling milkshakes made from Twinkies and Dr. Pepper before cooking Pixie Sticks in a spoon and straight shooting up "Grape." This is the kind of game it's going to be from here on out.

Dallas Cowboy Tashard Choice throws a block on a cornerback before going for the ball. The cornerback gets called for defensive pass interference. In another news, the corpse of Steve McNair was arrested for denting a bullet. Yep, it's going to be that kind of game.

Asante Samuel lets a key interception fly right through his hands. I haven't seen him blow a bigger potential-INT since Super Bowl XLII when he cost the Patiots the game by not getting an icing INT thrown right to him, just before he cost them the game again by blowing coverage on the Tyree catch. Fuck you, Asante. Just change your name to "Captain Regular Season."

Troy Aikman calls an end-around a reverse. He literally played football, where he handed the ball off on both reverses and end-arounds. He literally gets paid millions to watch football, where offenses run reverses and also end-arounds. Troy Aikman literally does not know what a reverse is. I bet Brad Johnson knows what a reverse is.

Well, the Cowboys won. I hope all Cowboys fans spend two straight days with their eyes propped open like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, forced to watch sexual-harasser and premature-ejaculator Jerry Jones dancing a naked solo jig, his flaccid maggot dick waggling in high definition.

Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Anyone who's been watching this season and isn't a serious homer knows the Patriots are D.O.A. (This isn't my re-writing this intro to appear sage after the fact. I wrote that during the Jets game the day before.) I've been a fan of the team for a long time, but I feel like anyone trying to look at them objectively realizes they'd have to argue themselves into belief in victory. The Patriots have been shaky all year. The defense is young and inexperienced, and on top of that, they mentally check out on some games, so you can't even tell if the "at least we're trying" version will show up. The running game is similarly bi-polar: Fred Taylor is mostly dead, not all dead; Sammy Morris rules, but he's coming back from injury; sometimes Laurence Maroney remembers that he's supposed to run toward the end zone, but most of the time he just dances left and right behind the offensive line; and as much as I love the good people of the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, I'm not sure Belichick knows he/they are on the team. Meanwhile, the offense is identical to 2007's, only other teams adjusted to it over the course of that season, vastly limiting its impact, and that was two years ago. Moreover, now coverages routinely neutralize Randy Moss, and he takes plays off to pout; he's pouting because Brady's return from injury brought both timing problems and his old shaky accuracy; and Wes Welker, the only sure thing on that side of the ball, is out because his knee ligaments exploded like someone twisting a stalk of celery. If a competent Ravens team shows up, this shouldn't be a contest.

Ahahahahaha, Ray Rice runs 80+ yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, and Brady's accuracy wasn't able to start this game apparently. It's already over.

Since this game's over, let me just mention the two reasons everyone told me that the Patriots were going to win: one, they had never lost a playoff game at home under Brady/Belichick; two, they had home-field advantage. Now, as to the latter, aside from a few dome teams out there, especially older domes that are more cramped and have accompanying amplifying acoustics, isn't this just old conventional wisdom we need to scrap? The Patriots won two AFC Championship games on the road. The 2005 Steelers won three playoff games on the road. Winning on the road is no longer anything close to uncommon, nor is winning at home really any likelier. Ask someone gambling on football in the last few years. Once you factor in the cost of seats or larger stadiums, home teams now often fail to enjoy crowds full of noisy die-hards or an intimate structure that allows sound to resonate. Besides, unless the visiting QB is particularly inexperienced or overly reliant on audibles, the noise isn't going to have any impact. Home-field advantage seems more and more like one of those x-factors that sports pundits like to invoke because it's the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to football's unpredictability. The team they thought was a lock lost instead?—well, that must be home-field, momentum and poise, etc. Intangibles like these were on hand in the former explanation for why the Patriots' would win: Brady and Belichick had always won home playoff games, so they must naturally continue to, right? Well, okay, but that's only an indicator of past performance. The same logic that says Brady and Belichick won't lose at home is the same logic that says man shouldn't be capable of heavier-than-air flight. I mean, there were all those millennia where man couldn't fly. Based on the incredible consistency of that, the Wright Brothers should have remained anchored to the ground at Kitty Hawk. Basically, the most substantive reasons anyone had for the Patriots' being likely to win were anchored in intangibles and lazy football folk wisdom, both of which are more respectable sounding terms for "bullshit."

Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
This game was phenomenal, just the best way to finish a dreary football weekend. Granted, it's disappointing that neither coach let their defenses take the field in the second half, but what a hell of a quarterback duel. I really hope this opens more people's eyes to how talented Aaron Rodgers is — if for nothing more than the fact that I want "Ryan from The Office" jokes about him to gain more traction — because he's way too good to be languishing under Brett Favre's cretinous shadow any longer. I remember I saw his stat-line some time during the middle of the season, and he had something like an incredible 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio, despite being sacked more than any other quarterback in the league. Half the time Rodgers drops back to pass, he's already screwed, and despite that pressure, he's remarkably smart and accurate. That INT to open the game wasn't his fault, and the ending fumble/INT was just a terrible shame given how well he'd played up until then. Still, just an awesome game. I've already watched it a couple times on my DVR and am going to be annoyed when the day comes that I have to delete it to make room for something — hopefully footage of Brett Favre exploding into hamburger inside a 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr after mowing down Bob Costas, Jerry Jones and the entire Dallas Cowboys' roster and then driving into a wall.