Monday, January 10, 2011

Harry Potter and the NFL Wild Card Weekend

Somewhere around hour #6 of the first day of NFL Wild Card weekend, I began to suspect that I'd been cured of my loathing of sports announcers.

Nearly two years spent luxuriating in the NFL Red Zone channel's absence of commercials and its frenetic jumps from game to game and from big play to big play meant that I'd experienced unmediated football. When big important things are happening in the game is when most announcers are too focused to go on inane time-filling mental jags. I had been spared about 30 weeks' worth of ads about THE ONLY TRUCK WITH A HEMI, Lipitor and dick medicine, and also "end zone" reporting from the obese Tony Siragusa, who needs to have a heart attack from mistaking his dick medicine for Lipitor — then have his corpse dragged into a ditch by a truck.

I was cheerful and, at times, a little bit rueful. This was fun. Who could fail to have total fun while watching football, and why had I failed at that so long? Could it be that I hadn't given people a fair shake?—that so much familiarity over so many years bred such contempt that I willfully blinded myself even to some announcers' good qualities? Were they actually good people, and was I actually just the jerk?

On the second day, during the fourth game of the weekend, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman dispelled all my doubts in less than three minutes. They didn't just suck; they sucked expeditiously. They sucked like they'd just gotten hired at Suck Co. by the Director of Suckery, and they were still in their 30 day probationary period wherein they could be terminated instantly for failure to suck hard, suck often and suck with vigor. Their ratio of minutes spent talking to minutes in which they were sucking approached one. They were truly doing yeoman's work, if "yeoman" is old English for the blowjob caddy on a ship that's falling apart because the people who built and run it are all assholes.

What I had forgotten to take into account was that minor but cherished delight of the NFL playoffs: that networks send out their best people to cover games because their limited broadcasting access allows them to know which is the game to cover. (For instance, of the four games this weekend, NBC covered the first two, while CBS and FOX covered the next two.) Generally, the people who have been around the longest are the people who viewers complain about the least, so networks send out the veterans expecting to satisfy the viewership.

This can still get screwed up, though. FOX Sports, for instance, is categorically horrible, which is how their premier announcing team can be universally regarded as the worst one on their payroll. Buck and Aikman have reached the top of the pyramid — and with any luck they will be entombed in it soon — but it's as if Egyptian civilization was based on the glory and immortality of turds. FOX Sports' national football (and baseball) empire is a ziggurat of cowpats lorded over by retards.

Let's go to the games.

Here is example #1 of why I'm not remembering the ugly condition of most football announcing. The play-by-play man, Tom Hammond, looks entirely too sweet. He is too kind for football and should not be affiliated with it at all. He looks like the kind of guy who owns a local furniture store and appears in all his own commercials. This also comes through during the broadcast. He just seems to enjoy what he's doing enough that my reaction is, "Okay, man, you take it away. I want to believe you."

Here is example #2 of why the announcing doesn't bug me: Mike Mayock. I don't think I have ever heard the guy call a game before, but he's the NFL Network's draft wonk, and he clearly knows a ton about what he's talking about. Clich├ęs are a broadcasting inevitability, but if you're going to mix them up with stuff I don't know and try to illuminate why things are happening, you can get away with multiple instances of "THIS GUY IS JUST A FOOTBALL PLAYER." Call it the Madden Threshold.

Marshawn Lynch runs 175 yards through the Saints and at least two Louisiana high school teams also named the Saints and also a giant animated Catholic calendar, eludes tackles from all of them and shoves at least three Saints players to the ground, causing all of them to die. It might be the most incredible run I've ever seen outside of Steve Young essentially collapsing forward 40+ yards through the Minnesota Vikings' tacklers for a touchdown. I have no idea what kind of coaching on the Saints' side precedes an event like that, but I would have to guess:
COACH: Okay, I want you to hit hard and with elasticity. Get in there and clobber that motherfucker and see if you can't propel him forward at the same time as you hurl yourself backward. Make sure to create impact, THEN create space. We want this to look good. NFL Films hasn't used the ridiculous "SPROING-OING-OING" sound effect on a highlight or blooper reel video in 25 years. I want you guys going down like goddamn ninepins. NOW LET'S GET OUT THERE, AND LET'S HUSTLE!!!

Oh, man, the camera cuts to Drew Brees on the sideline. Watching the other team score a go-ahead touchdown very late in the game while you stand impotently on the sideline earning millions of dollars. That has to feel like... torture.

SPORTS-FAN SIDE EFFECT: Watching Marshawn's run again on replay and seeing missed tackle after missed tackle, I can already hear every single "WOOP!" out of Chris Berman.

A completely exciting game overall, totally rewarding and a perfect example of why playoff football is so much fun. I personally had no qualms with a 7-9 Seattle team making the postseason, precisely because I remember complaining about the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals making the postseason in 2008 (over the likes of the 11-5 Patriots, in the sense that, although they are in different leagues, a team with 10+ wins was out, while a team with less than ten was in) and then watching as they — incredibly, beautifully — came just seconds away from winning the Super Bowl. I was really glad to see the Seahawks vindicate this impulse and help make the best game of the weekend. Unfortunately, they had to play out of their minds to win this game, and I'll be surprised if they have much left in the tank for next week.

Here's the thing: I sweeeeeaaaaaaaaar that last year I noticed that Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell looks unsettlingly like Nien Nunb from Return of the Jedi. I promise you. It was something that leapt out at me, that I mentioned to friends, that I riffed on during a Super Bowl party, that I couldn't stop laughing at. It was one of those jokes that you put in your pocket, waiting for the right piece in which to use it, hoping that eventually the Colts or Caldwell will do something engrossing enough to write about, allowing you to roll out a really good one-liner. Then I mentioned it to someone a few months back, and his reply was, "Oh, you read Deadspin, too?" I was crushed—CRUSHED!!! The second worst part of it was that the joke came from Drew Magary, the guy responsible for the immortal "Sexy Rexy" jokes about Rex Grossman that were easily some of the funniest things anybody's ever written about football and led me to read him devotedly for a long time. For one thing, he's a tough act to follow. For another, eventually, I stopped reading each piece, because he started churning out multiple columns per week about shitting, shitting locations, shitting accidents, reader letters about shitting accidents, etc. It was like being stuck in the car with a guy who's over 40 and who you've known for at least 20 years and who, in ice cold temperatures and with the windows rolled up, leans over to his left in the driver's seat and rips a huge fart and then looks at you like, "Ahahaha, brah! I fuckin' farted, brah. Faaaaaaarts, brah! Ahahaha, you should see your face, brah, you think it smells like shit in here," and you look at him and think, in quick succession:
1. Because it does, you moron.
2. The only thing separating you from an 8-year-old is a driver's license and a Roth IRA.
3. I can't believe your wife puts up with you.
4. I hope she's fucking somebody right now.
Basically I'll never understand how Drew Magary is both really funny and also THAT GUY, because you'd think being bright enough to be that funny would also make him not enjoy being THAT GUY. There's an explanation for it, but only THAT GUYs have it, and it's that "THAT GUY is funny." Only other THAT GUYs like THAT GUY. Obviously that is totally wrong of them. *farts*

My run of not noticing how bad football announcing continues with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. I don't know anyone who can bag on Michaels, and while I hear negative things about Collinsworth, I just don't understand them. He definitely has a streak of know-it-all-ism, but he watches tons of game tape and seems to have something to say about every other play that the average fan would overlook. For most announcers, telling you something you didn't know usually amounts to, "WELL WE TALKED TO THIS GUY LAST NIGHT, AND HE SAID HE WAS FIRED UP, AND YOU CAN SEE HIM FIRED UP NOW. WE WERE IN THE LOCKER ROOM TALKING, AND LET ME TELL YOU, THIS GUY HAD REAL INTENSITY." Whatever. At least Collinsworth does things like explain why a team just screwed up and let the other team gain 45 yards.

There's a tight end for the Colts named Jacob Tamme. Pronounced "Tammy." I'm pretty sure he changed his last name from "Tami." When he was growing up, he wanted to found his own football team, The Esprit Benettons. Their colors would be both white AND the United Colors of Benetton. All players would be required to wear leg warmers, to prevent hamstring injury, and also to chew gum, all the time.

Beyond the Nien Nunb resemblance, the one thing that strikes me about Jim Caldwell is that he always looks afraid — not palpable, reasoning fear but rather disorienting, creeping fear. Jim Caldwell looks as if he has no idea how he wound up where he is, as if he's suffered a head injury, been dressed as an NFL coach, then regained active consciousness on the sideline. He knows 50,000+ people are watching him, but he can't panic. That will only draw attention to himself. Jim Caldwell's entire coaching philosophy seems to be, "Okay, keep cool. This is going to end any time now. No sudden moves."

Jim Caldwell calls a timeout that just destroys the Colts' chances of winning. Ostensibly, he's trying to stop the clock to give Peyton Manning more time to win the game if the Colts get the ball back, but he's just given the Jets plenty of time to stop and run a soberly planned play instead of rushing to the line and throwing out whatever they can. The Jets pick up 18 yards, and their kicker makes a roughly 30-yard kick instead of attempting a roughly 50-yard kick. This, despite the Jets' kicker being total dogshit all year from 45+ yards out. Caldwell's just inexplicably executed the Colts' postseason. It's just incredibly fucking dumb. It's defiantly, flabbergastingly dumb. Manning looks like he wants to murder him. Poor Manning. He's neck and neck with Tom Brady for greatest quarterback in history (Manning has better cumulative numbers; Brady now has a better passing efficiency and a TD:INT ratio, plus the rings), and he's just been saddled for a decade with terrible coaches, or terrible defense or no running game. The Colts need to fire Caldwell, make Manning his own Offensive Coordinator and hire someone like Gregg Williams to run their defense.

I just looked it up after someone asked me about it. All this time I assumed Caldwell must have been a proto-Tony Dungy (his predecessor). Dungy was the guy who helped Manning get over the hump by giving him a couple years of quality defensive teams. Surely, when Dungy picked his successor, he picked someone like himself: a defensively-minded coach who could complement Manning, who can run his own offense and just needs help keeping the others guys' score down. But nope, Caldwell was the quarterbacks coach. What the fuck. Being a quarterbacks coach around Peyton Manning is like being a Jerking Off coach around adolescent boys. You're totally unnecessary, and you should be arrested and removed before you fuck up and warp perfectly functional human beings. Worse, Caldwell was Dungy's quarterbacks coach in Tampa Bay, in 2001. That was the year they faced the Eagles in the playoffs and hung nine points on them. Quarterback Brad Johnson threw four fucking interceptions. Jim Caldwell is like a superhero of weakness and incompetence. I hope he rounds out his next coaching staff with:
1. Captain Mica
2. "Plastic That's Been Left out in the Sun" Man
3. Dr. Wuss
4. Bronco Najinsky
5. Hysterectomean Joe Green
6. Akili Smith
7. Bruce Coslet
8. Mr. Hugs (if not available: Dick Vermeil)
Someone with video editing savvy needs to tweak the scene of the Millennium Falcon shooting out of the Death Star as the fire almost engulfs it to show Jim Caldwell being flung out of an airlock and back into the inferno. I don't give a shit how wrong the physics would be.

Jim Nantz and Phil Simms continue this unprecedented streak of announcer tolerability. I am positively sunny. I'm also drinking beer and making a stew from a big-ass Cook's Illustrated cookbook a family member was kind enough to get me this Christmas. I am briefly contemplating listening to the Stones' "Miss You," just so I can refer to this as Disco Stew. I opt to keep it low-key. Disco Stew doesn't advertise.

Boy, it just doesn't feel like the NFL postseason until you're seeing Peyton Manning on TV, only it's in a commercial, and he's already been eliminated from playoff contention. Really, what a way to go out. Waffling and jobbed-out Manning is no fun. There has to be some way that we can make sure he either wins with ludicrous numbers of gorgeous bombed touchdowns or just flames out hysterically with tons of interceptions. This middling shit is weak.

Jamaal Charles is pretty badass. I'm guessing he's not going to get the ball much anymore.

Annnnd there we go, someone who is not Jamaal Charles is now running all the time.

The Ravens' punter is named Sam Koch, only it's pronounced more like "Coke." Is there any reason why, before the punt, NFL stadiums can't play
Darling yoooouuuuuuu send me,
Darling yoooouuuuuuu send me,
Darling yoooouuuuuuu send me,
Honest you do, honest you do, honest you do.
Really? Tell me why not.

If Coors is "The Banquet Beer," I genuinely do not want to know what The Buffet Beer is. Especially not the "Early Bird Special at Morrison's Cafeteria Buffet Beer."

True to form, referee Mike Carey has found at least two egregiously stupid penalties to call, both against the Chiefs, one of which had the longest possible delay between the penalty and the flag thrown on it, another of which occurred directly after a Ravens player got in his face and complained. I really wish Carey didn't suck this much, because he seems to be one of few black refs in the NFL, and I'm pretty sure that parts of "ten counties with fewer than ten black people in them" Missouri is taking this as badly as possible in the most melanin-oriented way.

This game is so stultifying and terrible that I start talking to my friend Tiff, who's going through the Harry Potter books, ostensibly with her children. This leads to our bitching at length about the worst aspects of the books, namely The Five Worst Things About Harry Potter:
1. They all rely on the LOST theory of plot-lengthening. If you've seen the TV series LOST, you know what I'm talking about: "I, a character who is always in danger of death or torture, have learned a vital secret. Despite the fact that you are also always in the same danger, I will allow a reason that is meaningless in the face of death to keep me from sharing this secret with you, despite the fact that you might know something about it that could save us all." Or, in the Harry Potter universe: "For some dumb reason, I resent Hermione, Ron or Dumbledore right now. Despite the fact that these are the only three people keeping me from being murdered every fucking year, I will tell them nothing."
2. "Despite the fact that I am nearly fucking murdered every year by the most infamous bad dude in history and am championed by the most famous good dude in history, nobody will believe anything I say, because it's politically expedient to deny my claims. At no point will any other politician in my universe consider it politically expedient not only to believe me but to exaggerate my claims."
3. "As the morally superior part of the wizarding race, we will not authorize deadly force against known murderers and their cohorts, many of whom have sworn a lifelong oath to murder us. We see a utilitarian value in failing to capture them and thus guaranteeing greater numbers of murders of wizards and non-wizards, because we will not use deadly force. However, we will imprison these criminals in a place where they are emotionally tortured and have their souls fed on, sucked out and ultimately totally devoured over the course of years. Proactive action to prevent mass death from known killers is less morally acceptable than decades of torture."
4. The wizarding world watches on in dismay as non-wizards get murdered willy-nilly, yet never gives out basic protective advice. They look on, in horror, at non-wizard hospitals, where people are sewn back together with needles, then wonder why people don't use magic to instantly knit their flesh and broken bones. They have at their disposal means to instantly end the suffering and torment of millions, yet refuse to use it lest they be inconvenienced in some way. But that's cool, because the books sort of have a lesson about how racism is bad. It's wrong to treat someone like shit because of where they come from or what they look like. But class warfare is fucking awesome. If they're a rung below you, fuck 'em. Let 'em scream and bleed. Fucking shit-ignorant poors. Muggle is the nigger of the world. Only it's not about race! It's about whether you get enchanted paychecks. It's cool, I swear!
5. Harry Potter is a fucking moron. He spends like seven years in constant danger, and he basically comes out of it doing the wizard equivalent of knowing how to ride a bike. Only every time his ass is about to fall off, some bike-steering stone appears in his pocket, or a bike-fixing bird shows up, or some long-lost cyclist godfather shows up, or the baddest motherfucker in the universe tries to ram him with a bike and somehow doesn't remember to wear a helmet, or something, or whatever. Harry Potter should wear a bib and a mouthguard and be put on an electronic tether.
Bonus Worst Thing: there is no reason why anyone would ever do anything in quidditch other than go for the snitch. (How do you create your own sport and then create a scoring system so fucking broken and lopsided that it renders half the conduct on the field of play totally meaningless?) I remember reading my favorite sportswriter, Joe Posnanski, revealing that he only noticed this irregularity after it was mentioned by sabermetrics guru Bill James. I love Joe Poz, but how do you not notice this in book one?

Also, before this game, Baltimore free safety Ed Reed's brother apparently drowned by lateraling himself out of a car and into a river.

This game is fucking horrible.

So how did this game break the streak of decent playoff football announcing? Barely minutes into the broadcast, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman begin talking about how this is the game that will make Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' career. See, despite his having an insanely great TD:INT ratio last season, and despite leading his team to the playoffs this season even after seeing over a dozen key teammates felled by injury, he hasn't proven himself by winning in the playoffs. Wins make you a good quarterback. Not winning makes you really sucky. For instance, Troy Aikman won three Super Bowls, and Peyton Manning has won and lost one. This is why — every significant metric aside — Troy Aikman is a better quarterback than Peyton Manning. It just makes sense. This is why Aaron Rodgers needs to prove that he is not bad, by winning. He must do this despite appearing in a playoff game last season in which he:
1. Threw four touchdown passes.
2. Rushed for another touchdown.
3. Threw for 422 yards.
Doing that means nothing, because he lost. If Rodgers were a playoff-caliber quarterback, an Aikman-like Dallas Cowboys quarterback, he would have somehow stopped his defense from giving up 45 points. Because good quarterbacks just find ways to win ballgames. And Joe and Troy ought to know how bad Aaron Rodgers was in that game: they were the broadcasting team assigned to it.

Then, at 6:49 p.m. (EST) in the broadcast:
BUCK: Chad Hall hauls it in and is then hauled to the ground.
"I guess you could say that the Packers' secondary is causing a lot of offensive congestion for the Eagles, and it's going to take a little Vick's run to break up the coverage. Otherwise, for good or ill, the Eagles are going to be left out in the cold. Also eagles fly up to my giant fucking forehead to make nests and lay eggs."

And that's it. That's the weekend in Wild Card football. The Packers went on to win, finally proving that Aaron Rodgers is a good quarterback. But the weekend still inspires questions. For instance, why were all this weekend's winning teams — except the Seahawks— visiting teams? Well, if I may borrow from Troy's playbook, clearly it's that Homefield Advantage (represented along the B-axis) has less aggregate value that Momentum and Hustle (which we graph on the S-axis). The Seahawks just had more Hustle, which is why that intangible trumped the other intangibles.

The B rating of 2 was no match for the S rating of 27, which rates a BS of 227. What's happening? Good times, man. Good times.