Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
Watching a sport is a commitment, even if the people who broadcast sports aren’t supposed to say so. For instance, Joe Buck, Fox’s lead announcer for football and baseball, caught heat in 2008 when he said that baseball’s everyday grind and long games make it impractical for many fans to follow their teams closely. Buck said that football’s weekly, 16-game schedule is more manageable, and that’s true, but if you want to keep tabs on the whole league, it’s still a lot of work. That’s why I’ve come to admire Inside The NFL. The longtime pay-cable staple—the longest-running program on cable, in fact—lessens the workload. It’s the ideal show for viewers who can’t buy into all-out fandom but still want to browse.
Airing Tuesday nights on Showtime and Wednesday nights (with commercials) on NFL Network, Inside The NFL is an hour-long affair that mixes panel discussions with highlights of all the past week’s games. Although there are others shows that offer comprehensive recaps of NFL action, Inside The NFL’s distinguishing feature has always been its highlights. Produced by NFL Films, they make every game feel like a short movie, and because the league’s own film crews get more intimate access than the TV networks, their editors can tell more humane stories. You don’t necessarily see all the big plays, but it still provides a decent catch-up on the week’s developments.
Even with inspired help from the league’s own film crews, though, Inside The NFL had come to feel rote by the time HBO canceled it in 2008. Showtime soon picked up the show and recast it with talent from CBS’ football coverage, but it still felt like a dusty old-timers’ club, detached from the speed and intensity of the modern game. The title, fitting when the then-groundbreaking show premiered in 1977, was a bit silly in an era when countless blogs, podcasts, and cable networks cover the league in exhaustive detail.
This year, though, Showtime has injected Inside The NFL with fresh blood by adding Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the regular panel. It’s the first time that an active player has been part of the cast, and Marshall’s presence gives Inside’s conversation a special credibility. It doesn’t hurt that Marshall is ridiculously telegenic and grows more poised in front of the camera every week. He gives pro football a face it needs right now: gracious, down-to-earth, and with an inspiring backstory to boot.
Marshall became a center of controversy this week after reporters overheard him dressing down his teammates after the Bears’ loss to the Miami Dolphins. He addressed the flap on the Inside panel—with CBS commentators Greg Gumbel, Boomer Esiason, and Phil Simms—in a chat wasn’t earth-shattering but did provide insight into an NFL locker room’s pecking order. Though well rehearsed, Marshall dropped his guard a little and engaged in the sort of calm (for football) discussion that Inside’s relaxed confines encourage.
With the addition of Marshall, Showtime has turned Inside The NFL’s clubby atmosphere to its advantage. Rather than coming off as out of touch, the program now feels like it possesses a modicum of critical distance—still very much part of the NFL media machine, but separate from the frenzy. From the viewer’s perspective, it’s a way to follow the game without being consumed by it.
The Seahawks are reeling from an upset loss to the Rams, a defeat made even more painful by the fact that victory was within their grasp. In the closing seconds of Sunday’s game, St. Louis running back Tre Mason fumbled, but the Rams were lucky enough to recover it themselves. The ball ended up at the bottom of a pile, and while Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said that he grabbed it, there was no conclusive visual evidence to that effect. How could there be? Like I said, the ball was at the bottom of a pile—a pulsating thousand-pound mass of torsos, limbs, and viciousness.
The fumble pile is the no man’s land of pro football, a realm where officials fear to tread. It’s reliably amusing to watch a wiry old line judge grab and prod at a heap of men twice his size, like he’s scaling a God Of War boss. But that’s the only funny thing about the pile, which is otherwise a den of horrors. Here’s a passage from Anthony Gargano’s book NFL Unplugged that describes these conflagrations:
From deep inside, it feels like a coffin. Tight and constricted and smothering. But it’s worse, because things are going inside this pile. Very bad things.
“Inhumane things,” Anthony Becht said. “I remember one against Atlanta. We really needed the ball and guys are grabbing all parts of the body. Doing anything to get the ball back. You could hear guys screaming. I wasn’t even in the pile, but I knew by the sounds how nasty it was in there.”
Added former offensive tackle Orlando Brown, “Pinching, spitting, punching, all that shit happens in there. I stay away from the pile. I’ve told coaches, ‘I’ll wreck some people, but I ain’t falling on that football.’ Fingers are broken all the time. I’m hitting motherfuckers. I ain’t laying on the ball. I can’t see who’s coming to hit me, so I just clean up the pile.”
Oh, football! You are the living end. In the next paragraph, a player tells an even more graphic story, but it contains too much extreme testicular trauma for inclusion in Block & Tackle. As for NFL Unplugged, it’s a bunch of hit-or-miss anecdotes held together with verbal spackle, and the spackle might be the best part: Gargano’s rococo, typo-riddled prose produces comic touches like “because things are going inside this pile.” That said, I should warn you again that the book features tales of extreme testicular trauma. Top that, soccer. The Block & Tackle “tight and constricted and smothering” prediction: Seattle 24, Carolina 19.
Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week is Bruce Stritesky. He’s an umpire on referee Gene Steratore’s crew who wears #102, which doesn’t even seem like a valid number. Maybe he’s not a real umpire, which would explain a lot. Hi, I’m the yellow flag. Referees throw me when players commit a foul. At least, they’re supposed to.
In the second quarter of the Bengals-Colts game, my associate Bruce Stritesky ejected Colts linebacker Erik Walden for making contact with an official (Stritesky). You’ve got to understand, an ejection is a big deal for the yellow flag (me). This isn’t some rinky-dink illegal formation call. Ejecting a player is the closest I’ll ever come to legal murder. So I like to make a splash when it happens. But look what this cretin Stritesky did at the crucial moment of justice:
“Uhh, how does this thing work again?” Christ, Bruce, we’ve prepared for this moment all our lives. I was ready, and you choked. Offense #84 was right to laugh at you. Congratulations to Bruce Stritesky, Block & Tackle’s official Official Of The Week.
Late last week, two Arizona sports radio hosts enraged each other to the verge of fisticuffs during a discussion about the Oakland Raiders. They weren’t talking about the development of Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, or about interim head coach Tony Sparano’s struggle to halt the team’s winning streak. No, as Deadspin reported, Doug Franz and Ron Wolfley of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM reached the point of voice-trembling rage because they couldn’t agree on the worth of the Oakland Raiders brand. To paraphrase Sayre’s Law: In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why sports talk radio is so terrible.
The same axiom doesn’t apply on the football field. Oakland-Cleveland is one of the lower-stakes entries on the Week 8 docket, and the energy among the players is likely to reflect that. Yes, winless, hopeless Oakland is still playing for pride, but pride isn’t quite as potent a motivator as true glory is. And while Cleveland’s season still has potential, a loss to the lowly Jaguars in Week 7 has the Browns looking timid, as they’re once again running from their own ghosts. They’re predictable that way, the Scooby-Doo gang of the NFL.
But low-stakes games have their place, too. Not everyone seeks portentous, pulse-quickening excitement in the middle of a lazy Sunday afternoon. Lower the volume a couple of notches when this matchup comes on; let the anodyne tones of CBS’ Spero Dedes wash across you. The game becomes a soporific mother’s milk of sport, lulling you with its muffled collisions and airy field goal attempts. Sleep, football child. Sleep. The Block & Tackle “shhhhhh” prediction: Cleveland 16, Oakland 13.
Actually, don’t bother. I already did it for you.
Phil Simms is Ilana.
Greg Gumbel is Abbi.
Boomer is Bevers.
Brandon Marshall is Lincoln.
Because of solar flares, the following game predictions were misprinted in last Friday’s column: Seattle vs. St. Louis, Cleveland vs. Jacksonville, Miami vs. Chicago, New Orleans vs. Detroit, and Kansas City vs. San Diego. We regret the errors and appreciate the opportunity to correct the record.
Tuesday’s Block & Tackle column featured footage of Colin Kaepernick looking at the Denver Broncos’ actual horse, Thunder. In the comments, B&T reader Mr. Fingerbottom noted that the Kansas City Chiefs have their own actual horse, Warpaint, and Chiefs safety Eric Berry is afraid of it. After learning of this, the NFL naturally responded by sending a camera crew to make Eric Berry touch the Kansas City horse. See, the league isn’t all bad.
You can watch the full segment, which includes more backstory on Berry’s horse-phobia, at NFL.com. And Eric, if you’re reading, you’re a good sport. Here’s a picture of adorable, harmless animals to calm your nerves. Stare at it and let the soothing cuteness sink in:
Here are Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 8 slate. All Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct.
Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS/NFL Network): Denver 38, San Diego 24.
Detroit Lions vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., Fox): Detroit 27, Atlanta 20. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Falcons are 9-3 against teams named after cats and 8-4 against other teams named after birds. The rare two-animal threat.
Minnesota Vikings vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Tampa Bay 20, Minnesota 15. Mike Zimmer’s season-long game of Password with the press corps came to a merciful end this week.
Chicago Bears vs. New England Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): New England 32, Chicago 26.
Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Houston 17, Tennessee 10. This is the most excited Texans fan the Houston team photographer could find.
Buffalo Bills vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): New York 22, Buffalo 20.
Miami Dolphins vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Miami 28, Jacksonville 13. If the Broncos can have an actual horse, why can’t the Dolphins have an actual dolphin? In fact, they used to. He was named Flipper, and he’d jump into a tank when Miami scored. Then the team’s owner, Joe Robbie, got rid of Flipper, and Miami hated Robbie for it. The incident is the origin of The Flipper Curse: Since ditching the mascot, the Dolphins have won only two Super Bowls.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Cincinnati 21, Baltimore 17.
St. Louis Rams vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Kansas City 23, St. Louis 13. Although they remain in the playoff hunt, some Chiefs players are already looking ahead to next year.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Arizona 31, Philadelphia 27.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Indianapolis 35, Pittsburgh 25. Contrary to the team’s name, only one Pittsburgh player in history was made of steel: Kordell Stewart. The rest are aluminum.
Green Bay Packers vs. New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): New Orleans 28, Green Bay 27. As last week’s offensive team captain for the Packers, it was tight end Andrew Quarless’ job to grasp Aaron Rodgers’ string tightly as players exited the team bus, to ensure that the star quarterback (18 TDs, 1 INT) did not float away.
Washington vs. Dallas Cowboys (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Dallas 24, Washington 21.
B&T prediction record last week: 15-0
B&T prediction record for 2014 season: 105-0
Exasperating corrections made: 45