Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ road matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers did not go well for the visiting team, as the Chiefs forgot to set their alarm clocks and didn’t wake up until the fourth quarter of the game in which they were ostensibly participating. The final score was 43-14 in the Steelers’ favor. NFL statisticians are still reviewing the footage, though, and they may have discovered more Pittsburgh touchdowns by the time you read this.
The rout was on early: At halftime the Steelers had already built a 29-0 lead. This created a dilemma for NBC, which was contractually obligated to televise this game but morally obligated to entertain its audience, Little Big Shots notwithstanding. Thus, with the outcome in little doubt, Sunday Night Football shifted into blowout mode. Most people change the channel for blowout mode, but I watch even more closely. I like to see broadcasters improvise in a desperate effort to please their public. Plus, what the hell else am I going to do on a Sunday night, rewatch all the episodes of Little Big Shots on my DVR? I did that already.
NBC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels has a little signal to indicate that he has loosened his tie and shifted into blowout mode: He makes an offhand gambling reference. Early in the third quarter on Sunday, as Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth reflected on the life of Arnold Palmer, Collinsworth asked if he could share a story about the late golf legend. Michaels started to say, “Wait for the end of the game.” Then he changed his mind. “Well, why not?” Michaels said. “Over-under’s 48. Go right ahead.” And that was the tell. The over-under, if you’re not familiar, is a wager that bettors can place on the total points scored in a game—whether it will be over or under a target number (48 in this case) set by oddsmakers.
Michaels’ unspoken joke, as usual, was that the only people who would still be watching at that point were those who had money riding on the game. There’s a bit of mischief at work here, as well, since gambling has historically been a taboo topic for sports announcers. That prohibition has relaxed somewhat in recent years—the Scott Van Pelt-hosted edition of SportsCenter on ESPN, for instance, fixates on betting lines to the point of tedium, because ESPN’s idea of SportsCenter innovation is to recreate the experience of sitting in the OTB as winos complain about their “bad beats.”
And for good measure, the punchline of Collinsworth’s story revolved around gambling. Apparently, back in Collinsworth’s college playing days, Arnold Palmer welcomed Cris and his teammates into his home by remarking that they would win their upcoming bowl game but wouldn’t cover the spread. “And we all fell on the ground!” Collinsworth recounted, because he, too, was in blowout mode, which for him means turning his exaggeration afterburners to maximum.
Collinsworth is an excitable sort under normal circumstances, but in a dull game he pushes harder to gild every lily in sight. I’m sure this annoys some viewers. Even when it’s forced, though, I find his enthusiasm endearing—and forgivable coming from the smartest color commentator in football. With a few minutes remaining in the third quarter, Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns broke up a long pass. It was a good play by Burns, yet in the ensuing moments, Collinsworth worked himself into such a froth that you’d think Burns had built a rainbow rocketship to the moon, where he single-handedly won the Intergalactic Super Bowl. Collinsworth noted of Burns, “He was a junior hurdles champion!” It’s the “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” of sporting achievement.
Like most TV analysts, Collinsworth finds it hard to resist deifying teams when they’re in the midst of dominating an opponent. “You end up with this score, 43 to 7,” he said in the fourth quarter, “and you wonder just how good this team might be.” The instant those words left Collinsworth’s mouth, the Steelers center attempted to hike the ball into his own rectum, and the quarterback flopped onto the ground—a stupendously unathletic display that I memorialized in my notes as the “derp-a-doo.” The juxtaposition wan’t lost on the self-effacing Collinsworth. Moments later, he deadpanned, “The Steelers have just been terrible tonight.”
But there is only so much wisecracking and narrative-hyping that the guys in the booth can do, which is why NBC’s secret weapon for blowout mode is sideline reporter Michele Tafoya. The screenshot above is taken from a recent Facebook Live session that Tafoya did with Sunday Night fans, in which she showed us the bulging, tab-festooned binder of notes she and her team compile for each game. That payload of human-interest fluff could fill airtime for days, and as Chiefs-Steelers wound down, Tafoya made deft use of it.
She told us about Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who is studying to become a doctor. Michaels ignored the story and fixated on Tafoya’s delivery, saying, “Love the way you pronounce that name—Michele, give that to me one more time.” Tafoya happily obliged. Michaels: “Did you take French at Cal? … I had a feeling. I mean, that just flowed.” This is why you keep watching after a game turns into a laugher—because you might see members of the broadcast team start flirting with each other.
Tafoya also burned a few seconds of time with a mini-segment that NBC called “SUNDAY MEMES,” but I prefer to call it “MICHELE’Z MEEMEZ.” Tafoya introduced the bit by saying, “Well, there are some interesting meemez floating around the internet.” We were then shown a series of images that were obviously created not by “the internet” but rather by NBC producers doing their best impersonation of a 15-year-old Tumblr user.
Shortly thereafter, Collinsworth said, “If we’re going to do meemez, I’m going to do one I want to do, too.” Then he talked about how Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley has a young daughter who plays football. “Shut up, Cris, you don’t even know what a meme is, and you are ruining MICHELE’Z MEEMEZ!” I said to nobody in particular, because I was so very alone in my darkened basement, the only non-Steelers-fan in America still watching this game. And I loved it.
This weekend, join me. If the matchup you’re watching turns into a blowout, don’t look away. Instead, sit back and enjoy the punchy, desperate lunacy that results when the entertainment of the game falls short of its promise and TV is forced to make up the difference.
Rick Hamann is the chief creative officer for Onion, Inc., and he works five desks down from me in the gray content farm (read: totally inspiring office space!) where The A.V. Club staff plies its trade. Rick spent many successful years in the advertising world before joining our company, and he mentioned to me last week that he shot a couple of commercials with Peyton Manning, the professional spokesman and occasional football player. I invited him to share his Manning memories and to critique the new Manning commercials that have been airing this season. An edited transcript of our chat follows.
John Teti: Hi, Rick. It’s me, John Teti. Your friend.
Rick Hamann: Hi, John Teti, my friend.
JT: You work with me at Onion, Inc., as you probably know. What is your job at Onion, Inc.?
RH: I run the branded content group. So all the commercials you see all over our websites are somehow attributable to me. You’re welcome, America.
JT: I thought your job was just to hang out with me on Friday nights at your house.
RH: Yes. I’m in charge of your red wine intake on Friday nights.
JT: Mm, and perhaps other intake as well. You have prior experience in the ad industry—can you briefly recap that? Briefly!
RH: Before I worked at Onion, Inc., my career ranged from gigantic advertising agencies to little advertising agencies. I worked on everything from sports cars to chewing gum to sports drinks.
JT: As a creative.
RH: As a creative, yes. I’ve been a creative director and a copy writer.
JT: You and I were chatting, and you said that you worked on a shoot with now-retired NFL football superstar Peyton Manning. What was he like?
RH: I worked with several professional athletes, and he was by far the best of the bunch. He put on no airs. The company that we worked for promised first class flights, giant green rooms, his own trailer, Xbox games. He refused all of them and simply wanted a chair by the set where he could watch. He was really curious about how to make commercials.
He was unbelievably pleasant to everyone—despite the fact that we had to sign contracts stating that we would never speak to him, or ask him for an autograph, or engage him in any way. He would just throw the football to anyone who asked him on the sidelines.
I had the pleasure of actually having a beer with him where he told me stories of targeting people on the sidelines at the Pro Bowl—he was overthrowing wide receivers to bonk people on their heads.
JT: On purpose? He was so bored by the Pro Bowl that he was intentionally targeting guys on the sideline?
JT: That’s great. I’m delighted to hear that he was a nice guy, because he comes off as a nice guy on TV, but who knows?
RH: A lot of professional athletes show up late, having no idea what they’re doing. Their agent says, “Hey, just show up here, and you have to play your sport.” [But Manning] would offer up alternate lines. He would try to improvise on the set, and at least twice in the commercials that I did with him, we used what he came up with on set. He’d say, “Hey, can I say something silly here?” And we’d end up using it because it felt far more natural to have him go off the cuff than for me to type out Peyton Manning-esque words 18 months beforehand.
JT: That’s awesome! I didn’t know he did his own material.
RH: Oh, yeah. We had a bit where he was calling an audible, and his audible was way funnier than ours. We had a commercial with him interacting with a little kid, and he kind of threw a couple verbal jabs at the little kid, and we kept those. They were funnier than anything we had.
JT: So I’ve asked you here today to watch Peyton’s latest crop—the fall 2016 crop of Peyton Manning commercials.
RH: The retirement tour.
JT: Yes. It’s a rich harvest because he has nothing else to do. In fact, almost all of these commercials play off the fact that he is retired with nothing else to do.
JT: First up is “Cupcakes” for Papa John’s. The creative agency is Grey Global Group. You’re familiar with that outfit, I assume?
RH: Grey is known as a very good agency. They’ve done some great work in the last couple years. I’m not going to claim that this is part of that collection of great work. What I can say—what he has going for him is that he’s willing to take a poke at himself. He’s willing to humiliate himself in front of millions of people. But I’m also wildly distracted by Papa John’s plastic surgery.
JT: [Laughs.] Alleged plastic surgery, I’ll hasten to add! We don’t know!
RH: Sure, sure. We don’t know.
JT: I feel they spend a lot of time establishing that Peyton Manning is retired when everybody on Earth knows that by now.
RH: It’s a classic advertising client request that you name the professional athlete even though it’s being seen during an NFL game where, if you’re watching the NFL, you should recognize Peyton Manning. But a client said, I guarantee, for that .05 percent of people who don’t know who he is, “We need to specifically label him.” You’ll see that a lot in TV commercials. They’ll say, “Pro quarterback Peyton Manning?!”
JT: And what do you think of the gag?
RH: It’s a little easy to me. It’s also five degrees away from saying he turned into a sissy, and we should beat him up. It’s just vaguely insensitive that we’re making him out to be—“Oh, he used to be a tough guy, but now he’s a cupcake homo!”
JT: Well, you get at something there. Peyton ran into a problem with a DirecTV campaign last year when he—you probably remember this campaign—he appeared as Peyton Manning and as “high-pitched-voice Peyton Manning,” and some people saw it as homophobic, fairly enough. Getting back to this commercial, I think the pink shirt lends credence to your reading.
RH: It’s a bold move in 2016: outwardly gay-bashing in commercials.
JT: Next up is DirecTV. Peyton has done a lot of good work for DirecTV. And a little bit of bad work, like I mentioned, but not really his fault. Mostly good work.
RH: I do like sad-sack Peyton in this one. He’s taking it on all sides from these ad agencies! “This poor man has nothing going for him.”
JT: I love the detail of him scribbling Eli into his completely empty calendar. And, in this commercial, we don’t go through the laborious process of “Here’s who these people are!”
RH: Right, because they’ve used that real estate to clearly explain how DirecTV works. “You advertising creatives can have your little joke at the end, but we need to have clear ‘functionality of DirecTV’ talk for nine seconds.”
JT: But he makes it about as plausible as anybody could.
RH: He’s actually a decent actor, and I wouldn’t put it past him to do a small cameo in an actual movie or television show. He’s a really good actor, and he can make that terrible ad copy of “every Sunday, every game” sound like it’s coming out of a human being. He does it well. He doesn’t oversell the sad-sack thing.
JT: What about Eli? How do you grade Eli’s performance?
RH: [Laughs.] He’s three degrees above robotic.
JT: Three? That’s pretty generous.
RH: He could learn a lot about acting from his older brother.
JT: I think this is a good commercial.
RH: Yeah, I think it’s fun.
JT: I’m glad you agree. That validates me.
JT: Here’s Peyton’s latest Nationwide ad. The agency on this one is Ogilvy & Mather. What’s that place like?
RH: A gigantic agency owned by one of the two monolith companies—pretty much all advertising agencies are owned by two companies.
JT: What do you think of the spot?
RH: He’s just a regular guy, John. He’s just eating at a little corner diner.
JT: So, I have this theory of reality shows. I call it Teti’s Law Of Reality TV. It’s a theory, but I call it a law to make it seem more correct. The law is this: The longer a reality show stays on the air, the more that show becomes about itself. And I think that applies as well to successful ad campaigns, except that the navel-gazing takes over at a much more rapid clip. This commercial isn’t about Nationwide insurance. It’s about the Nationwide ad campaign. It’s Nationwide smelling its own farts. They’ve got the chicken parm on the counter, referring to earlier ads—I mean, there are Easter eggs referencing other commercials!
RH: I can see the creative brief now. It says, “Must capitalize on success of previous campaign. Elements that must be included: song, chicken parmesan sandwich…”
JT: You think that all was in place from the beginning.
RH: I guarantee this poor creative team had to thread the needle between all of these mandatories—managing to actually put 30 seconds together in front of us is a pretty gigantic feat. That’s a tall order to make that work.
My kids liked the first one. They thought the first one—the chicken parm, whatever—was funny. But who cares about this self-referential one? Yeah, it’s up its own butthole.
JT: So you think this is not an effective ad.
RH: Well, I think the earworm quality of it is going to make us want to blow our brains out in 45 minutes. I think they just realize that people liked the original, and putting new lyrics to that Nationwide song—they’re just trying to milk that poor Peyton Manning cow until it’s dry.
JT: My favorite part of this commercial is that Peyton’s conversation with this guy, if you keep listening after the shot cuts away, devolves into what I’m pretty sure is just Peyton saying the words “busy busy good busy bzzzzz.”
RH: Yeah, that’s his version of “rutabaga” or “peas and carrots.”
JT: Exactly. Okay, last one coming up. I couldn’t find any creative agency associated with this one. It’s apparently part of a series in which Manning is in some sort of rivalry with the otter mascot for OtterBox.
RH: Makes perfect sense. Ripped from the headlines.
JT: I guess Manning dies in that one. Hilarious.
RH: It’s assuming that we know anything about this OtterBox-Peyton Manning grudge—
JT: It’s assuming a lot.
RH: So little of that made sense to me.
JT: I’ve watched it half a dozen times now. When I first saw it on TV, I was like, “What just happened here?” It’s so choppily edited—it’s just not very well put together. Nationwide can get away with not really mentioning the product because everyone is aware of them as an insurance company. But OtterBox—it’s very hard to glean from this commercial that OtterBox is a case you can put your phone in.
RH: Oh. I had no idea that’s what an OtterBox is.
In the twisted world of advertising logic, you can wrap your head around, “Well, Peyton Manning is out of work right now, so he might call his brother.” “Peyton Manning is out of work right now, so he might go eat at this diner.”
RH: But Peyton Manning being out of work does not qualify him for the research and development group of OtterBox. It just seems like such a sad use of his endorsement.
JT: I feel like you’re in trouble when you’ve got the scientist guy talking about the OtterBox spokesman and you have to add the phrase “…who is you”—clearly added in post, and a phrase no human being would ever utter. They were worried, I guess, that people wouldn’t know Peyton Manning is the OtterBox spokesperson, which—that’s a reasonable concern! Nobody knows that, or cares. So maybe don’t make it the entire premise of your commercial.
RH: I like that somebody along the line communicated to the director that Peyton Manning will not be wearing the hard hat. “Peyton Manning, he’ll wear the white jacket, but he will not be putting on that hat.”
JT: Oh yeah! He tosses it aside for some reason, even though he’s clearly aware that he’s in some peril.
RH: He wore the glasses! But he does have his limits.
[We watch the commercial again out of morbid fascination.]
RH: That is a 90-second commercial crammed into 30 seconds. This whole, like, “otter pays off beard man” thing—that went by really fast.
JT: There’s a lot of plot going on here. I also don’t understand why Peyton is upset that the otter is the one pushing the button. What difference does it make who pushes the button?
RH: He wanted to be killed by the tall man instead.
JT: How about that sound effect for his skull being crushed?
RH: You know the sound guy went through like 40 or 50 options. “It needs to be a little wetter. Boost the bone crunch by 25 percent.”
JT: This is a pretty bad spot, would you agree?
RH: Yeah—I want to go on record saying that I know this is incredibly difficult. This is tough. I’m sure they were tasked with something very difficult. But this is pretty stupid.
JT: Do you think this was an outside agency? It’s so crummy that I figure they just did it themselves.
RH: It feels in-house. It feels like they shot it themselves, and maybe it was—a couple guys from marketing just got this great idea, found an extra $400,000 to pay Peyton Manning, and then they realized they had no budget left.
JT: What’s your favorite out of the four we watched? Is DirecTV the best?
RH: I think so.
JT: They stepped over the line with the “I’m gay Peyton Manning, and I’m awful!” thing last year, but I feel that DirecTV in general has done pretty good work.
RH: They’ve done some really nice stuff. You can tell that they’ve had to back off of the edge a little bit, but I still think they’re able to do something watchable. They’re able to use [Manning’s] acting ability to their benefit. Giving him all this dialogue with Eli was smart.
JT: Plus the Lionel Richie cameo.
RH: I’m glad he’s getting work!
JT: And we agree that the OtterBox one is the worst?
RH: Uh, by far.
JT: Thanks, Rick. If Peyton Manning makes more commercials—it could happen—maybe you can come back and critique those, too.
When Buffalo Bills kicker Dan Carpenter missed a field goal off the left upright in Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts referred to it as a “clanker.” While the accepted term for this phenomenon is “doink” (as play-by-play man Ian Eagle described it), I find Fouts’ alternate nomenclature pretty funny, too, and it is thereby deemed acceptable for occasional use. I cannot approve of Fouts’ subsequent attempt to characterize Carpenter’s miss as a “double doink,” however, as that term is already reserved for the ultra-rare doink that ricochets off both goalposts (or one goalpost plus the crossbar). We must all do our part to prevent doink inflation from devaluing precious doinks.
ESPN’s graphic designers believe that Mike Zimmer is a good coach, but they don’t want you to forget about Mike Zimmber, who is also excellent.
Oh hello, I am just a generic computer woman looking at these giant representations of football statistics
“Hello, I am a generic computer man who is also looking at those statistics. I will now hobble menacingly toward you.”
Seriously, though, ESPN graphics people, could you hook me up with some edibles?
“Tell you what. I’ll help you with your shredded ligament problem if you help me with my butt sweat problem.”
Here are Block & Tackle’s “never wrong” final score predictions for the Week 5 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.
Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers (last night, 8:25 p.m., CBS/NFL Network): Arizona 23, San Francisco 20.
Tennessee Titans vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Miami 17, Tennessee 11.
New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Pittsburgh 28, New York 14. New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles is confident that if he stands for the national anthem hard enough, he can will his team to victory.
Houston Texans vs. Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Minnesota 31, Houston 19. Few fans are aware that the “Houston” in “Houston Texans” is actually the New York City street, not the Texas city. (The fact that the team plays in Houston, Texas is just a weird coincidence.) So be sure to repeatedly tell your friends that it’s actually pronounced “How-ston” Texans.
New England Patriots vs. Cleveland Browns (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): New England 71, Cleveland 3. It’s finally over. It’s finally over. It’s finally over. It’s finally over. It’s finally over. It’s finally over. It’s finally over.
Chicago Bears vs. Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Indianapolis 26, Chicago 17. Now that the dorks at Apple have changed their gun emoji from a Colt-revolver-looking firearm to a stupid water pistol, the official Block & Tackle emoji for the Colts doesn’t make any sense when viewed on Apple devices. So after this week, the Colts will henceforth be represented by the unicorn face emoji.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Philadelphia 30, Detroit 10.
Washington vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Baltimore 4, Washington 2.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., Fox): Denver 24, Atlanta 13.
San Diego Chargers vs. Oakland Raiders (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Oakland 23, San Diego 21. Here are the top five Oakland Raiders whose last names sound like a place where you could live, in descending order of livability: long snapper Jon Condo, running back DeAndre Washington, guard Denver Kirkland, defensive end Jihad Ward, wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Dallas 24, Cincinnati 23.
Buffalo Bills vs. Los Angeles Rams (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Buffalo 16, Los Angeles 13.
New York Giants vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Green Bay 21, New York 18. Odell Beckham Jr. once again lost his cool against the Vikings on Monday night, which made me feel like a dumbass after I stuck up for him last week. To his credit, however, he still looks fantastic in a pair of expensive sneakers. And he smells delightful! On second thought, that might be the Yves Saint Laurent perfume insert in this free magazine they gave me at the Skokie Bloomingdale’s. But I’m pretty sure it’s Odell. By the way, in case you were wondering, the menswear selection at the Skokie Bloomingdale’s is terrible.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Carolina Panthers (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Carolina 21, Tampa Bay 17.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2016 season: 63-0
Untruthful games last week: 6
Untruthful games overall in 2016: 29