Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
When Super Bowl 50 kicks off this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern (1:30 p.m. Hawaii), the nation’s rooting interests will be split. Some fans will pull for the Denver Broncos, the magnificent stallions who conquered the AFC with a stifling defense that, judging by media reports, was led by quarterback Peyton Manning. On the other side will be fans of the Carolina Panthers, those meowing marauders whose quarterback has sparked controversy by enjoying himself on a football field while also being black. Regardless of which team they favor, though, Americans appear to be practically unanimous in their disdain for Phil Simms, CBS’ lead football analyst. That’s a shame. We should be enjoying the Phil Simms era while it lasts.
Simms will join noted golf announcer Jim Nantz in the booth for Super Bowl 50, and because Nantz and Simms handle CBS’ Thursday Night Football package in addition to their regular Sunday duties, they have called more nationally televised games this year than any other broadcast pair, by a considerable margin. So you could argue that the widespread anti-Simms sentiment—as seen in, for instance, the vituperative replies to CBS’ innocuous tweet of an old Nantz/Simms photo—is simply the fatigue of familiarity. It’s like when you eat a lot of cake, and suddenly you’re tired of cake and do not want to eat it anymore, let alone hear it broadcast a football game. Maybe the public has simply enjoyed too much of the scrumptious Simms.
Or maybe—by which I mean definitely—Simms is criticized because he isn’t very “good” at “his job.” Dan Levy of Awful Announcing made that case last week in an exasperated screed detailing Simms’ tendency to state the obvious at best and overlook the obvious at worst. Along the same lines, USA Today’s Chris Chase put together a ranking of every TV announcing team to call the Super Bowl, and Simms-infused crews occupy three of the bottom four slots (which strikes me as a bit excessive). Even Nantz himself didn’t quite defend the quality of his booth partner’s commentary when asked about it in a recent Sports Illustrated interview, instead praising Simms’ work ethic: “I admire the effort he puts into it every time we do a game.”
But while Simms may not be a top-notch announcer, he deserves more than an “A” for effort, as he is one of the game’s great comedians—whether he intends to be or not. I touched on this in 2014 when I argued that lousy announcers can be just as enjoyable as top-tier talents, and my appreciation for Simms’ bumbling in particular has only deepened since then. Of course it is generally preferable to hear an analyst, like NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, who makes the game smarter, but nobody is better than Simms at making the game dumber, and that has an appeal, too.
It’s not just that Simms says dumb things; he says dumb things in his own distinct manner, creating figurations of verbage that you could not find anywhere else. Nobody tosses a word salad like Phil does. When the aging commentator remarks that a player is an excellent “thrower of the football” (or the variation seen above, a “great hitter in the run game”), his singularly oafish diction acts as a fitting sendup of a sport that operates, at its base level, on caveman instincts. Andy Dalton throw football hard! He good thrower! Simms mocks the stodgy seriousness of pro football without even meaning to do so.
Another of my favorite Simms-isms from this season came when he noted, during the Baltimore-Denver game, that Broncos running back C.J. Anderson had become a focal point of the team’s offense. Most commentators would share this insight by simply remarking, “Anderson has become a focal point of this offense.” And Simms did say something like that, but first he set up his observation about Anderson by telling Nantz, “They clarified him, Jim, as the man.” Clarified as the man! I did not know the English language could do that, and I’m still not sure it can. In any case, I do enjoy hearing Simms twist his mother tongue into extraordinary shapes.
The former Giants star isn’t stupid, and he does possess a self-awareness that shows up when he flashes his wit: After a technical snafu cut power to the booth for a couple of plays during the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati wild-card game, Simms quipped that home viewers “just missed some of my best work!” But Simms is also able to plunge into a fugue state of abject non-self-awareness, making him the rare person who can have a debate with himself and lose both sides. This, too, is a pleasure to behold.
When Pittsburgh faced a short fourth down in overtime during its Oct. 1 home matchup against Baltimore, Nantz reacted with some surprise that Pittsburgh apparently didn’t plan to kick a field goal. “Why would they?” Simms responded, noting that the Steelers’ placekicker had missed his last two field goal attempts. Less than half a minute later, Simms remarked, “I like to coach every once in a while. … I’d kick it.” He went on to add, “I would kick it,” and “I would definitely kick this football.” There is no such thing as cognitive dissonance in the mental universe of Phil Simms. Each contradictory thought simply adds to the harmony.
Viewers of the Super Bowl this year will enjoy the thrill of knowing that the wheels could fly off the broadcast machinery at any time—a peril that Nantz knows all too well. During a timeout in this season’s Colts-Broncos contest, with Indianapolis having jumped out to a surprising 17-point lead, Nantz joked, “Well, you saw this one coming, didn’t you?” Simms at first appeared to recognize the easy setup, answering, “Oh, yes!” After that, though, he just let out a sort of grunt, followed by the word “great.” Then ensued five eternal seconds of awkwardness as Nantz waited for his partner to finish the thought, mistakenly assuming that Simms had a thought to finish. It fell to Nantz to break the dead air, rousing Simms back to consciousness in time for the analyst to unleash another verse of his exquisite gridiron poetry:
Ah yeah you know
We never know, we think—you know
Sometimes we get a feel
for a game
I mean, of course did not have any sensation
That it coulda be like this
But I’ll go back to what I saw
How hard they were practicing
—Phillip Lentronomus Simms
I’ve featured Simms’ spoken-word artistry in the column before, and people probably assume that I’m making fun of him, which I am, but out of love, not malice. I am fond of Phil Simms, partly because he’s an endearing character, and partly because “somewhat addled football commentary” is pretty low on my list of concerns about the American broadcasting industry. It’s just not that big a deal, so there’s no harm in enjoying the silliness—especially since Phil’s specific brand of lunacy is not something we’re likely to see again.
So you should savor Simms’ inevitable bumbling during Super Bowl 50, for it’s hard to say how much longer he’ll be around. There are already rumors that CBS would like to add Peyton Manning to its roster if, as expected, the Hall Of Fame passer retires after the season. CBS’ football producers would surely be tempted to give Manning the No. 1 analyst slot, bumping Simms down a rung or—heaven forfend—out of a job altogether. Given his uncertain future, let’s cherish the time we have with the NFL’s most disdained color commentator, and use this Sunday’s broadcast to clarify him as the odd, adorable man that he is.
Arizona’s Bruce Arians and Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy are having a staring contest.
Seattle’s Pete Carroll is trying to remember a dream he had about a beautiful sexy fish.
New England’s Bill Belichick is spitting.
The opening minutes of a Super Bowl are eerie—they do not sound like any other NFL game. Because the championship is played on a neutral field, the stands are populated by a mix of fans supporting either team plus a large contingent of indifferent corporate types who are only there to drain the expense account. That gives the crowd noise a desultory quality, and every year I’m struck by how weird it is to hear a different sort of hubbub in the background. The predictable hum and hush of the spectators is such an essential part of pro football’s aural tapestry that you don’t notice the usual noise until it’s gone, replaced by an uncertain murmur. That restless sound complements the action on the Super Bowl field, which is typically erratic in the early going as teams adjust to the tension of performing on mass media’s biggest stage.
After a quarter or two, though, the teams typically find their rhythm, the boozed-up corporate types find a rooting interest, and the stadium sounds “right” again. If the game remains competitive, it builds to a crescendo in the fourth quarter, and then the confetti flies. This arc of nervous uncertainty giving way to rapturous do-or-die excitement mirrors the season as a whole, in miniature. Teams feel inchoate when they first take the field in Week 1; by the season’s midpoint they establish an identity; at the end their fate is determined—often in spectacular fashion.
The Super Bowl compresses this narrative into the space of one four-hour event, and that is key to the game’s outsized popularity. The millions of viewers who ignore football except for the “big game” don’t have to feel like dilettantes, as they’re getting a compressed version of the season-long NFL journey. The unique trappings of the event create the sense that the Super Bowl operates in its own world, separate from the rest of the NFL calendar, and the difference is palpable—you hear it in the crowd, you see it on the coaches’ faces, you sense it in the messiness of the players’ opening drives. Because the title game feels like its own entity, and not so much like a continuation of what came before, novice viewers don’t feel like they’re dropping into the middle of a story. Instead, the experience feels complete.
I have no rooting interest in this matchup, but that’s a fun way to watch a Super Bowl, because I’m sure that by the time the Broncos and Panthers finish their climactic clash, I’ll be pulling in one direction or another. Football can do that to you, and that’s why I can’t quit it. For all its shameful flaws, the sport is a marvelous narrative machine, drawing you in by generating a new legend, down by down, before your eyes. On Sunday, millions of people will tune in to see what kind of story the game will tell us this time. Together, collectively, we’ll feel the murmur build to a roar. That is the joy of Super Bowl Sunday. The Block & Tackle prediction: Carolina 23, Denver 19.