Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
The national news story of the year is Donald Trump, the real estate billionaire who retired from his reality television career to enter the less intellectually demanding field of presidential politics. The former Apprentice star is dominating not just the news cycle but also the Republican primary polls. If presidents in this country were chosen based on who’s most popular 14 months before the election when nobody really gives a shit—the way the Framers intended—then Donald “The Donald” Trump would be our commander-in-chief.
Trump’s rise has been fueled by his willingness to eschew the standard media approach for national candidates, which is to speak often while saying as little as possible. Instead, Trump addresses his followers with directness and force, bringing the same swagger to his truth-telling (e.g., his remarks on the pernicious influence of campaign finance) as he does to his dissembling (e.g., everything else). He attracts attention because while he panders as much as the next guy, at least he’s not so weaselly about it. Trump’s drivel comes to us raw—bullshit tartare—as opposed to the warmed-over stuff everyone else serves. He is shameless and forthright, offering a steady stream of unhinged soundbite fun that makes him a formidable candidate for the Twitter era, as he will tell you himself.
Trump’s fiery disposition serves a useful purpose by burning down American politics’ facade of dignity and reserve to unveil the craven soul underneath. Rex Ryan, the endlessly amusing coach of the Buffalo Bills, does the same for pro football.
Like his counterpart in the political sphere, Ryan is willing to dispense with press-conference politesse to dump on his rivals, as he did last week when he said of New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis, “I don’t think we’re gonna focus on that kid. I can’t even tell you that kid’s name.” Ryan knew the “kid’s” name; he was just playing around. In the media you often hear this notion that Ryan gives other teams “bulletin-board material,” but anyone who actually gets worked up over his yammering misses the point. He’s a character, and he appears to know it (and relish it).
Ryan’s dismissive slight was reminiscent of Trump’s more earnest mockery of Rand Paul during the CNN presidential debate, in which he remarked that his libertarian rival “shouldn’t even be on this stage” on account of “he’s got 1 percent in the polls.” Whenever someone loudly and prominently declares that another public figure is beneath their purview, there’s inevitably an oxymoronic quality to the statement, yet Rex Ryan and Trump manage to pull it off as if they really believe it.
Both men also refuse to apologize for their contagious hotheadedness, although—and here is an obvious but essential distinction—Trump’s rhetoric possesses a toxic bigotry that Ryan’s harmless and amusing comments do not. Trump has taken umbrage at the notion that he should have rebuked an audience member at a campaign event who referred to Muslims as a “problem in this country.” Ryan pulls the same verbal jiujitsu in a less repulsive context. A day after Sunday’s penalty-heavy loss to New England the Bills coach confronted a developing storyline that he had “overly hyped” his team into mouthy recklessness by insisting, “I’m not gonna put a muzzle on our players.” He also pointed out, accurately, that his Bills aren’t the only players in the league that talk trash: “Let’s face it, New England is not exactly the Boy Scouts Of America,” he told the press during his Monday media appearance.
I’m not the only one to note the parallel between these two blusterers. Boomer Esiason compared Ryan and Trump during Sunday’s NFL On CBS broadcast, and in a Boston radio interview the next day, he explained the analogy, saying that Ryan “drives everybody crazy. He gets everybody all whipped up into a frenzy.” Esiason’s reasoning is sound as far as it goes, but Trump and Ryan are fascinating less for their bombast in itself than for the emptiness they expose around them—audiences would care much less about them if they weren’t rousing the rabble in such a staid context.
Compare Ryan’s funny, sometimes biting, and eminently tweetable remarks to the other press-conference drama of Week 2: Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano’s sulky explanation for his team’s turnover-riffic Monday Night Football loss against the New York Jets. At his postgame presser, Pagano made some sidelong remarks about his offensive line that could possibly be interpreted (and therefore were definitely interpreted) as potshots at the Colts’ general manager. Pagano’s one vaguely Ryan-esque remark in the presser was seized upon by Indianapolis Star columnist/troll Gregg Doyel, who wrote:
Pagano then got cruel, noting that Zionsville High could beat the Colts with all those mistakes on offense. Then he delivered the coup de grace. Maybe it was unintentional, but this is what Pagano said about all the turnovers, about Andrew Luck’s poor play:
“It’s not that hard—it’s not trigonometry.”
Luck majored in architectural design at Stanford. That’s a math-based major. Not saying Pagano was specifically mocking.
Just saying. Maybe he was.
Doyel is not reading the tea leaves here so much as he’s smoking them, and that ain’t tea. But this is what happens when coaches assiduously avoid betraying any significant emotion or opinion: Members of the cretinous football media invent the drama, and they are awful at it. This in turn makes the sport’s public figures more reticent, because the hysteria surrounding any substantial verbal misstep is so disproportionate—same as it is on the campaign trail. A presidential field of Trumps is hardly ideal, and neither is an NFL with 32 Rex Ryans. But on his own, Ryan does show that football could feel more authentic—and its hallowed signal-callers more human—if coaches weren’t terrified of the words that might come out of their mouths.
(Plus, how can you not have affection for a guy who willingly subjects himself to late-era Adam Sandler? “Look at that jawline. Just the right amount of scruff.” Never change, Rex.)
Atlanta Falcons vs. Dallas Cowboys — Sunday, 1 p.m. Eastern, CBS
Falcons-Cowboys is the only matchup between undefeated teams this week, although the notion that the Cowboys aren’t defeated might come as news to Dallas fans. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo—a passer whose smile is so disarming that the NFL fines him $10,000 every game for unsportsmanlike handsomeness—took a hard hit against the Eagles and is expected to miss about half of the season.
Romo is laid up with what ESPN’s John Clayton called a “broken leg collarbone.” (This bizarre bulletin is still sitting there atop Clayton’s feed, in keeping with the network’s policy of not correcting egregiously wrong tweets for at least six months.) The injury was a stunner for a Cowboys fanbase that had high hopes coming into the season thanks to a resurgent defense.
I was disappointed, too, because even though I was raised to hate the Cowboys, as were most members of my generation, I can’t help liking them. I’m especially fond of Romo, who has been responsible for more exciting finishes than I can count. (He has the second-best fourth-quarter passer rating of all time, behind only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.) But while I was disappointed to see Romo get hurt, I wasn’t nearly as depressed as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. After the Eagles game, Jones said that the Romo news had him feeling “as low as a crippled cricket’s ass.”
That’s quite a phrase, too lavish for Jones to have come up with it off the cuff. I imagine that Jones has a huge library of index cards, like Joan Rivers’ joke file, filled with impossibly folksy sayings to convey every emotion. Or maybe he just steals a card from Dan Rather’s catalog every once in a while.
Romo will be replaced this Sunday by Brandon Weeden, maybe. Weeden’s qualifications for the job include “an intact collarbone” and “a properly fitting uniform”; they do not include “being good at playing the position of quarterback.” So when Dallas acquired passer Matt Cassel from the Buffalo Bills this week, there was reason for Weeden to believe that he might be shunted aside. As the Cowboys’ official website reports, Dallas head coach Jason Garrett was quick to reassure Weeden:
“He was very up front. ‘It’s your deal – take it and run with it.’” Weeden shared. “He said we’re behind you 1,000 percent. It was comforting coming from home. He didn’t have to call me. It was the way I was going to approach it that way.”
A thousand percent! That’s more than nine times the standard level of meaningless confidence, 110 percent. So rest assured that Weeden will be given every chance to succeed, until he does something unforgivable like throwing an incomplete pass, at which point Cassel will be given all the leftover chances to succeed.
The Falcons also stand at 2-0, but nobody cares because Atlanta doesn’t have an owner who compares himself to an insect’s rectum. The Block & Tackle prediction: Atlanta 28, Dallas 14.
That time a tropical fish tried to give Peyton Manning a kiss
Monday Night Football’s shouty new graphics
This week’s Jets-Colts matchup was a great opportunity to assess ESPN’s new NFL graphics package free from the bothersome distraction that a watchable football game might have caused. I expressed some hope last year that Monday Night Football’s next overhaul would echo the calm, restrained visuals seen on, for instance, ESPN’s SportsCenter and baseball coverage. BUT THE NETWORK WENT IN A RATHER DIFFERENT DIRECTION THIS SEASON FOR ITS FLAGSHIP NFL BROADCAST.
Just when it felt like we had finally escaped the era when every sports redesign had to be SCREAMIER and ANGRIER than what came before, here’s the 2015 edition of Monday Night Football, setting course for the Land Of Italics. Rather than drawing inspiration from the tasteful understatement of the standard ESPN look, the new MNF appears to have cribbed its ideas from a StarCraft knockoff that the designers downloaded for free on Steam.
The score bar has a dated feel, with team logo areas that are a hot mess of color smears, gloss effects, and questionable spacing. The Jets logo is jammed uncomfortably close to the left edge of its box. The team abbreviations almost-but-not-quite overlap the color smears directly below. And then there’s the most “huh?” design decision of all, those half-assed, barely visible strokes below the clocks and down-and-distance readout that fade away for no discernible reason. Maybe the designers figured that if they snuck those half-lines in there, we might not notice all the dead space down there in the sorry, forgotten lower-right corner. Oh, but I noticed.
Still, there are elements worthy of praise. The little info bar that slides up to identify a penalty is slick. It’s both more informative and easier to read than comparable penalty graphics on competing networks, and I like the detail of the yellow stripe across the top to match the flag.
ESPN’s most novel idea in this redesign is the way the score bar fades out after the snap and then fades back in once the play is over. I don’t have a strong opinion either way on this one. I’ve never been bothered by the persistent presence of the score bar on, say, Sunday Night Football, but I don’t mind ESPN’s approach, either. Maybe if the bar disappeared with one of those swish-swoosh effects that the networks love so much, there would be a problem, but in this case the transition really is just a quiet fade (which is a minor miracle). So this innovation is a wash, but in principle I’m happy any time a broadcaster recognizes that the focus ought to be on the field.
Then again, the field is also where viewers can glimpse the homeliest element of MNF 2015, the superimposed down-and-distance arrow. That thing is simply horrid, as if the design team got a 16-year-old hopped up on mushrooms and locked him in a room with Adobe Illustrator’s gradient tool for a couple hours. Like similar graphics on other networks, ESPN’s arrow automatically skews to match the camera’s perspective on the field. That’s good! But then the text is italicized, which awkwardly throws it out of alignment with the yardage numbers and makes everything look askew. That’s bad—and so is most of this sloppy redesign.
San Diego Chargers vs. Minnesota Vikings — Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Kam “Don’t Call Me Cam, I Can Tell When You’re Pronouncing It With A ‘C’” Chancellor ended his contract holdout Wednesday after abstaining from the first two weeks of the 2015 season. Chancellor’s voluntary absence failed to secure the more lucrative deal he sought, but an even more stubborn star in Minnesota is hoping that his hardball negotiation will pay dividends. Of course I’m referring to “Ragnar,” a man who dons a horned helmet and what appears to be a rather ripe fur vest so he can delight the crowd by riding a motorcycle across the Viking’s field (not while the game is in progress, although that would be awesome).
Ragnar, whose real-world alter ego is Joe Juranitch, has been rallying fans at Vikings home games for 20 years, but the Minnesota brass didn’t ask him back this year. Concerned citizens first noticed Ragnar’s absence when Minnesota had its first home game of the season this week, with no Harley-riding man-beast to be found. Ragnar subsequently drummed up sympathy on his Facebook page with a photo of himself looking forlorn while watching the game on TV, and also there was a large metal rendition of a helmet for some reason. “It doesn’t feel right sitting at home,” Sad Ragnar wrote, “This is not by my choice.” As word of Ragnar’s sorrow spread, the Vikings quelled burgeoning fan protests by leaking Juranitch’s demands to the Associated Press: He wanted $20,000 per game—an increase of 1,233 percent over his previous pay. Come on, Ragnar, not even Brandon Weeden gets that much percent.
One key difference between Juranitch’s holdout and Kam Chancellor’s is that, as a top-tier pass defender, Chancellor has extraordinary skills that are difficult to replace. Meanwhile, Ragnar is a beefy fellow who rides a motorcycle, and I suspect the Vikings could find someone else fitting that description in the Twin Cities area. But they don’t need to, since the Vikings already have an official non-Ragnar mascot, and he’s a pretty good one! Viktor The Viking, seen above, is the rare costumed freak who’s goofy, tough, and adorable all at once. Ragnar may have been torpedoed by his own greed, but all Viktor wants is your love. Oh, and a $325 per hour appearance fee. No personal checks, please. The Block & Tackle prediction: Minnesota 22, San Diego 17.
Andy Reid plays it real cool
This week in gun-jumping
Here are Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 3 slate. All Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct. If there is a discrepancy between a prediction and an actual football game, the football game is wrong.
Washington vs. New York Giants (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS/NFL Network): New York 16, Washington 9. NFC East teams are featured in four of the next seven Sunday Night Football matchups, giving you a great opportunity to check out the new fall TV season.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Indianapolis 35, Tennessee 18.
Oakland Raiders vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Oakland 17, Cleveland 13. Despite leading the Browns to victory last week after starting quarterback Josh McCown went out with a concussion, Johnny Manziel will sit on the bench while McCown starts this week. ESPN’s Pat McManamon explains, “The Browns’ thinking goes this way: We go back to McCown because he was our guy. He gets the chance because we believe he gives us our best chance.” McManamon has a more generous definition of “thinking” than most.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Cincinnati 21, Baltimore 20. If you had told me before the season that Cincinnati would come into this game 2-0 and Baltimore would be 0-2, I would have said, “Jesus Christ, this is a boring conversation.”
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New England Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): New England 45, Jacksonville 24.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. St. Louis Rams (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Pittsburgh 25, St. Louis 17. Pittsburgh twice eschewed an extra-point kick in last week’s win against the 49ers, choosing instead to attempt a two-point conversion—successfully so on both occasions. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says, “Oh, we’re going to keep doing it.” This is fun and good, not just because two-point conversions are more exciting than kicks but also because it is neat to see an “8” pop up on the score scroll at the bottom of the screen.
New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Carolina 28, New Orleans 20.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): New York 20, Philadelphia 12.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Houston Texans (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Houston 5, Tampa Bay 2.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Arizona 24, San Francisco 16. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the 49ers are 5-2 against teams named after cats and 17-12 against teams named after birds—the rare two-animal threat.
Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Buffalo 17, Miami 13.
Chicago Bears vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Seattle 23, Chicago 19.
Denver Broncos vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Denver 28, Detroit 21. Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall finally found the football he was looking for! It was behind the coffee machine.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Green Bay 42, Kansas City 23.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2015 season: 32-0
Erroneous football games played: 13
Block & Tackle Week 3 Picks: Pocket Edition