Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
Pro football fans are in for a special treat this weekend: All of the games will be televised, on television. This massive undertaking will involve the world’s biggest sports network—ESPN—and almost all of the major national broadcast networks, except ABC, which instead will program its Sunday afternoon with something called Timbersports Series. “The nation’s top lumberjacks compete in the ultimate test of strength and agility,” reads the description for Timbersports Series on ABC’s official schedule—like anyone would want to watch chainsaw-fueled mayhem when the excitement of touchbacks is available just a few clicks down the dial.
As for the NFL’s non-ABC broadcast partners, well, they take a lot of harsh criticism here in Block & Tackle. That’s because, as an asshole with an internet column, I obviously know better than licensed TV professionals. But I also have to concede that NBC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN do many things well as they bring the game into our homes each week. (I do not have to concede the same for NFL Network.) In that laudatory spirit, throughout this week’s column I’m highlighting one thing that each network does better, from a production point of view, than its competitors. It’s a salute to excellence in the field of filling time between cell phone commercials. We kick off with NBC, whose Sunday Night Football is the present-day gold standard—the Trans-Pacific Partnership of modern NFL television.
Cinematography isn’t just the part of the Oscars when it’s safe to take a bathroom break—it’s also the art of using the camera to tell a story. And it applies as much to live sports as it does to feature films, at least in the expert hands of NBC’s Sunday Night Football camera crew. While all night games tend to have an inherently cinematic feel—the lighting is dramatic, and our intangible awareness of the national audience heightens the stakes—NBC’s elegant, skillful shot composition lends a filmic feel to a game of meatheads.
The sophistication comes through in small, split-second choices. The above clip features one of my favorite shots from NBC’s season so far. As the camera tracks a New England Patriots defender crossing the field, the blurry visage of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer enters the frame. The camera operator stops following the Patriots player and executes a rack focus that makes Palmer the subject. In one uninterrupted shot, we get an intimate glimpse of players from both teams and a feel for the currents of motion on the field between downs.
That sort of smooth, improvisational shot-making is a signature of NBC, and it’s the result of an experienced team working with a confident boss—namely, Drew Esocoff, who’s probably the best TV sports director working today. In the sequence above, your average director probably would have cut away when Palmer obscured the shot. Esocoff, however, had enough trust in his camera operator to let the image develop. Any given evening of Sunday Night Football will have a handful of tiny yet inspired choices like this one—on-the-fly visual compositions that are only possible with a top-tier crew working in creative synchronicity.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford faces his old team this Sunday, if two months ago qualifies as “old.” In a sport where trades are rare, the Eagles swapped Bradford to the Vikings just a week before the 2016 season began. The transaction made sense for both sides. The Vikings needed an experienced QB to salvage their year after Teddy Bridgewater injured his knee. And by then the Eagles had tired of Bradford, as they tire of all their quarterbacks. It’s what Eagles quarterbacks are there for—to be the focus of an ever-encroaching dissatisfaction until they are discarded. (Philadelphia already looks forward to growing weary of rookie phenom Carson Wentz.)
Because Bradford was with the Eagles so recently, the advance coverage of this game has dredged up a classic football trope: “He knows their playbook!” The theory here is that Bradford’s inside scoop on the Eagles’ tactics will give the Vikings an advantage. Bradford will have his George S. Patton moment, perching in victory at the top of Lincoln Financial Field to shout, “I read your book, you magnificent bastard!” Except instead of German field marshal Erwin Rommel, he will be addressing Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson, an equally shrewd strategist.
Surely Pederson would not let his team walk into such a trap. And yet: “Eagles not changing playbook for game vs. Sam Bradford, Vikings,” wrote ESPN’s Tim McManus this week, his raised eyebrow implicit in the headline. “Pederson not worried about Bradford’s familiarity with Eagles playbook—but he should be,” fretted PhillyVoice.com, a website with the word Philly in it.
Mike Zimmer, the Vikings’ head coach, insists that the utility of Bradford’s playbook knowledge was “overrated.” He told reporters, “I just think you go off the tape and you go do the best you can.” Even press-conference clichés occasionally overlap with the truth. Zimmer’s remark gets to the nonsense at the heart of this “Sam Bradford, Master Spy” narrative: Like all NFL teams, the Vikings don’t really need a playbook to see the sort of offense that Philadelphia runs—they have film of every game. Sure, Bradford’s in-depth experience might be a nice bonus, but it’s not like the Vikings would be flying blind without him. (Plus, video footage reveals tendencies and, rather significantly, whether the plays actually work, which the playbook doesn’t.)
NFL reporters know this, but it’s more fun to maintain the premise that the playbook is a precious tome whose secrets could destroy a team. Even sports have their MacGuffins.
I’ve previously advocated for the pleasures of watching football with a nice pair of headphones. Granted, this recommendation assumes that you’re enjoying the game in solitude, and hey, I get it. It’s nice to have “friends” and “human contact” and “a guy who sometimes brings chili.”
But I also savor the hypnotic sensation of watching the NFL on a TV that’s a little too big with a pair of headphones turned up a little too loud. Professional microphones capture a whole universe of sound that doesn’t come through on typical TV speakers, let alone at a crowded sports bar. You can hear the players grunt and curse. The shouts of the hecklers. The crisp enunciation of the stadium PA announcer.
These details are there on every network’s feed, but the audio mix on CBS sounds the best to me, by an admittedly small margin. CBS’ technicians shape the crowd noise and unobtrusively fold in the booth commentators’ patter to create a sense of space that transports you to the field. It’s an immersive effect that is only enhanced by the rich free-verse narration of Phil Simms.
All TV sports feature shots of the people in the stands, but Fox obsesses over them. That’s a hindrance in certain contexts, like Fox’s postseason baseball coverage, where the relentless cuts to fan-reaction shots distract from the slow build of tension on the field. For football, though, Fox’s approach works. No network manages to extract more amusement from the motley characters who populate NFL crowds. Last Sunday’s Falcons-Seahawks was a case in point: The first half alone featured a marvelous assortment of Seattle strangeness.
A musclebound chicken searched in vain for someone susceptible to his terpsichorean wiles. Meanwhile, the fan in front of him enjoyed a moment of quiet pride: By painting his ear pink instead of green this week, he had immeasurably heightened the breast cancer awareness of those around him, perhaps providing the last bit of momentum that society needed to find a cure.
A mask is a great way to show your team pride and avoid outstanding felony arrest warrants.
This hero’s superpower is the ability to finish second in his fantasy football league for three years straight.
Atlanta Falcons Mohawk Guy’s buddy didn’t think he was actually going to wear that thing to the game.
Here’s where the Fox folks went above and beyond. They didn’t just find Falcons Mohawk Guy. They also found Seahawks Mohawk Guy—fresh off his vacation, which he spent luring South Carolina children into the woods—and paired the two of them in a split screen. Is this cornball stuff? To be sure. In a league so needlessly dour that players are punished for miming archery, however, a side of corn is welcome.
Speaking of whimsy, ESPN’s Monday Night Football has a playful side, too. Every week, there’s at least one pre-produced graphics sequence that presents pertinent stats in impertinent fashion. The results can be weird, which is appealing enough, but sometimes they are also brilliant, like the above Skee-Ball animation that Monday Night put together to illustrate the pass-defense woes of the 2016 New York Jets.
For once, I concur with Jon Gruden: I love what we saw here. Skee-Ball is such a clever way to illustrate a bunch of long throws, because the swooping motion of Skee-Ball echoes the downfield arc of a pass. What gets me, though, is the attention to detail: the logos on the balls, the fingerprint smudges on the glass, the arcade sound effects. Yes, I do bemoan the cheap feel of Monday Night Football from time to time. On the other hand, I’ll forgive a lot of sins for Skee-Football.
Aaron Rodgers wore an interesting sweater to his press conference last night. As the Green Bay quarterback said in 2014:
Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packer-land: R-E-L-A-X. Relax.
Or as The Big Lebowski put it in 1998:
THE DUDE: Man, could you just—just take it easy, man?
WALTER: You know, that’s your answer for everything, Dude.
Rick Hamann is the person in charge of sponsored content at Onion, Inc.—please, hold your applause until I’m finished. Rick applied his extensive ad-industry experience (as a copy writer and creative director) to critique Peyton Manning commercials with me two weeks ago, and it was a good time. So we’re going to make Commercial Korner an occasional feature of Block & Tackle, and Rick will again join me to assess the ads we’re forced to endure while we’re trying to endure NFL football.
In the Korner this week, Rick and I are watching “Dream In Black: Suite,” a commercial for Beautyrest mattresses.
John Teti: Hi, Rick, it’s your friend John Teti. From work.
Rick Hamann: Hi!
JT: A couple weeks ago, we critiqued Peyton Manning commercials. And Manning is a prolific endorser, but his erstwhile rival Tom Brady does the occasional TV spot, too. So today, we’re looking at handsome hero quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in an ad for the Beautyrest Black line of mattresses. The creative agency of record is KBS+P, and it was directed by Noam Murro. Do you know that name?
RH: Yeah, when I was in the agency business, if you could get Noam Murro on the phone, you’d be like, “Ooh, guys, guys! Get on the phone! It’s Noam Murro!”
JT: [Laughs.] Really?
RH: Yeah, he is a great commercial director and has done some wonderful work. I think I’ve tried to get Noam Murro to shoot a lot of my stuff, and he has passed on every single one. I could hear him shredding the scripts that I sent to him. A lot of times, you’d say, “We’d really like to get Noam Murro,” and the producer would say, “Ehhh, I don’t think so. He’s real choosy.”
JT: I didn’t know this commercial had such a pedigree. I’ve watched it about seven or eight hundred times, but let’s watch it again.
JT: Is this a good commercial?
RH: First of all, the casting of Marty Feldman as the hotel guy, I thought, was a brilliant choice. But the ad on the whole—I did not like it. It’s a long walk for a saggy mattress. It just felt like they said, “We’re going to try to accomplish every cool thing we can possibly do in the course of 30 seconds.” Laying it on so thick. [And there’s a 60-second version, too. —Ed.]
I actually could have gotten on board if it were a high-end watch or something. But then when you reveal this mattress that you can lie down on at your local mattress store—I felt like I was betrayed by this commercial.
JT: I had a different take on it. I was mostly just delighted to see that Tom Brady had dialogue. Because look, Peyton Manning, as you observed last week and have personally experienced, is a witty guy. He’s personable on camera. And Tom Brady—while they’re both great quarterbacks—Tom Brady is more of a football savant, and I have never seen him show much talent in anything else, aside from looking fantastic in clothes. Don’t get me wrong, Brady seems like a nice guy—although it’s hard to tell because he’s kind of remote. But I think this commercial was written for him insofar as it requires him to be a prop for 29 of the 30 seconds. And I’m sure he was okay with that.
RH: As a vehicle to use Tom Brady, that’s exactly what you need to do with him. If you’re asking me if I liked the commercial as a human being, I would say no. But if you’re asking me as someone who’s been challenged with having to work with a professional athlete—maybe someone who isn’t as comfortable in front of the camera as Peyton Manning—I think that it works really well. I mean, you’re saying, “Okay, what can we do with this guy who’s staggeringly handsome and does look good in a suit?” And the answer is, “Well, maybe we should have him walk through some luxurious hallways for 28 seconds!”
JT: The one line that he has in the scene, he doesn’t even deliver very well.
RH: No, but I like to think that Noam Murro—his direction to Brady was, “Think of it as a sandwich that you’d really like to eat.” The look on Brady’s face, it’s like—are you gonna eat it? Are you going to make love to and eat this mattress?
JT: Yes. It’s the “…not a thing” that does make it come off a little skeevy.
RH: It’s a cross between skeevy and hungry. If you had done the exact same thing and the camera revealed the product, and it was a Big Mac, I would have said, “Yeah, okay! I get it!”
JT: This would be a great commercial for a Big Mac. So, for some reason, there’s a making-of video that goes with this ad. Let’s watch that.
RH: Tom Brady, at the end of the behind-the-scenes footage, was as personable and human-like as I’ve ever seen him. He’s instantly like, “Ugh, thank God I’m done with this shoot. Off to my Maserati!”
JT: I like when Brady says, “It features the product.” He’s so game as he tries to convince us he’s invested in this commercial. Always a team player!
RH: I’m fairly sure the Beautyrest PR people said, “Hey, during this interview, it would be great if you could say the product was featured. You don’t have to! In your own words, Tom, of course!”
JT: What disappoints me about this little behind-the-scenes thing is that it gives no credit to Edgar Oliver, who plays the concierge guy. He’s this odd figure in the New York theater scene, and he actually talks like that. If you search YouTube, you can find clips of his work—his manner of speaking is really entertaining, and if you watch the ad again, you see all the little glances and moves that he does to insert some spice into these scenes with Brady just being a mannequin.
RH: Much like Tom Brady has to put the team on his back and march them down the field, this Edgar Oliver took Tom Brady on his shoulders and carried him to the end zone of this commercial. You knew that if Tom Brady needed to murder somebody on that bed, this character is willing to just clean it up. “I’ll take care of it, Mr. Brady. The bodies will be taken care of.”
I do think, compared to some of the stuff we saw Peyton Manning subject himself to, this was a fairly good use of Brady’s time. At least it wasn’t Manning being murdered by—what was it?
JT: An otter.
RH: An otter, right. At least Brady got to wear a nice turtleneck.
Here are Block & Tackle’s “never wrong” final score predictions for the rest of the Week 7 slate. The predictions must not be doubted. They are truth. They are the only truth. If a game differs from the prediction listed here, it is simply being untruthful—shamefully so.
Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS/NFL Network): Green Bay 28, Chicago 17. Calmer than you are, Dude.
New York Giants vs. Los Angeles Rams (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., NFL Network): New York 18, Los Angeles 13. It’s almost as if simply saying the league has a zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence doesn’t quite solve the problem.
New Orleans Saints vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Kansas City 23, New Orleans 20.
Washington vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Detroit 24, Washington 16.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Indianapolis 27, Tennessee 23. “Other way, Rishard.”
Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Buffalo 22, Miami 21.
Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Baltimore 4, New York 2.
Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Cincinnati 28, Cleveland 6. As it placed Cleveland at the bottom of its Week 7 NFL “power rankings,” ESPN.com observed, “The Browns have lost nine straight games, with five different starting quarterbacks over that span. Cody Kessler has started the past four, however, and his 53.7 Total QBR [ESPN’s proprietary quarterback-rating stat] has been better than the others over that time (45.8).” If there is a sadder statistic, I don’t want to hear it, because it would make me cry, and my cats are sitting here as I write this. I try to maintain a brave front for them—just as Cody Kessler puts up a brave front by managing to play not quite as fecklessly as those other guys.
Oakland Raiders vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Oakland 26, Jacksonville 20.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): San Francisco 21, Tampa Bay 20. P.S.: Fox has the best on-screen score box, too—nice and compact.
San Diego Chargers vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Atlanta 33, San Diego 27.
New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): New England 35, Pittsburgh 31.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Arizona 27, Seattle 19.
Houston Texans vs. Denver Broncos (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Broncos 20, Texans 16. The analysts on ESPN’s NFL Live explained this week that the Broncos are mad at Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler—formerly of Denver—because he didn’t text them back over the summer. “Should’ve sent them an emoji, at least,” observed one ESPN personality. High school never ends.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2016 season: 92-0
Untruthful games last week: 5
Overall truth-untruth ratio in 2016: 53-39