If you watch football for any length of time, you will hear announcers parrot the same familiar phrases. Clichés are inevitable in announcing, because when you spend three hours watching a bunch of men intermittently scurry around on a painted lawn, there will be moments where you can’t come up with something original to say. So instead, you say things that other people have said many time before. “This is a big third down,” or “These teams just don’t like each other.” This week’s Block & Tackle is a salute to that sort of verbal spackle—a veritable trove of clichés, assembled here for loving overanalysis.
“Right up the gut” can be applied to any reasonably successful running play in which the back carries the ball through the center of the formation without making any moves first. The conceit, I suppose, is that we are to imagine the defensive team as one giant person and then watch as the running back delivers a potent blow to Jimmy Defense’s midsection.
The use of the preposition “up,” rather than “in,” goes a long way to make “right up the gut” more grotesque than it needs to be. Every time I hear “right up the gut” in the context of a hard-charging running back, my mind conjures some new, unwanted image of intestinal trauma. I’ve had a colonoscopy before, and it’s unpleasant enough already. I do not need to imagine the procedure as administered by a big man in a hurry.
To make matters worse, if a team successfully runs the ball “right up the gut” more than once in a drive, you are liable to hear a commentator enthuse, for instance, “The Colts are running it down their throats!” At this point, the digestive system of our collective imagination comes under assault from all angles.
As football plays go, a between-the-tackles run is among the most straightforward, literally. Man runs, man falls down. It leaves announcers with little to say. Maybe this is why they so often overcompensate by rendering a simple five-yard run as a phantasmagoria of gastric torture.
Clichés come and go, and their comings and goings can tell you something about the history of the game. It used to be common for analysts on NFL game broadcasts to refer to a player’s helmet as a “hat.” John Madden, the longtime color commentator, used to call helmets “hats” almost exclusively. His flip nomenclature fit his era.
Madden’s coaching heyday was the 1970s, when he led the Oakland Raiders to a series of division titles and a Super Bowl win. The league then was not such a vast, gleaming machine of high-def sports content. The NFL of the ’70s had a matter-of-fact grittiness to it—the game itself was more of an earthbound grind than it is in 2019—and no team was scruffier and scrappier than the Raiders.
Oakland’s quarterback, Ken Stabler, embodied the team’s dirt-dog vibe. He was a swaggering, mustachioed man’s man, with a self-cultivated reputation for carrying on a boozy nightlife. Stabler was the kind of smooth operator who would chat up the opponents’ cheerleaders before the game (in front of the cameras, to be sure), but he wasn’t a playboy—he was a working man’s icon. So the helmet was part of his work uniform. He was the kind of guy who could credibly call it a “hat.” By the same token, so was John Madden.
Madden’s “hat” was an intentionally plain choice of words. A hat is prosaic, unremarkable clothing. Today, in a faster game, and after years of dire news from head-injury research, the helmet must be much more than that. For the NFL, the helmet is a high-tech device with the implied power to do the impossible: make football as safe as we used to imagine it was. A shell of foam and hard plastic has become a totem, practically an object of worship, in the league’s quest to conquer physics with technology.
That’s why you seldom hear an announcer say “hat” anymore. It’s unfashionable for these voices of the NFL to diminish the mighty helmet by casting it as a mere chapeau. We, the football-viewing public, are smart enough to know that a hat could never save this sinful sport from its fundamentally destructive nature. Imagine thinking that a hat could solve your problems—that’s ridiculous. But a shiny helmet! Now we are impressed. “It protects your head from harm!” we marvel. “Well, not exac—” say the scientists. “Great, thanks,” we say.
Maybe someday the marvelous helmet will fix football, we like to think, because this fantasy makes it easier to keep watching. Then, by halftime, we’re a few beers deep, and we’ve forgotten about the whole brain-trauma thing altogether. See? Helmets work. You just can’t delude yourself the same way with a hat.
“Four-down territory” refers to a situation in which a team’s best strategy is to go for it on fourth down. It’s a somewhat muddled metaphor. Actual territory on the field is part of a coach’s consideration on fourth down, but so are other factors like the score or the weather. In the clip above, CBS announcer Andrew Catalon asks his colleagues, “Guys, is this four-down territory, inside seven minutes?” “Four-down territory” pertains to all of this—territory both literal and conceptual.
Rather than “situation,” or maybe “scenario,” “territory” has become the default simply because it’s more fun to say. It’s more evocative, suggesting that a desperate team has entered a sort of wilderness. And there’s a blunt poetry at work, too. Spoken out loud, the four points of stress in the words “four-down territory” echo the rhythm of the downs themselves. On an instinctive level, announcers gravitate toward punchy, pleasing phrases like this. Matters of meter are matters that matter to people who natter.
On occasion, an offensive drive goes outlandishly awry, and a team finds itself pushed so far back from the original line of scrimmage that the prospect of getting a first down becomes utter fantasy—a dreamer’s notion, to be scorned and derided by more rational thinkers. In these cases, NBC announcer Al Michaels likes to throw out the yardages altogether and call the down and distance “fourth and a million.” (Michaels’ booth partner Cris Collinsworth has picked this up from Al over the years, too.)
The average NFL offense gains about 350 yards in a game. To complete a fourth-and-a-million play would require more than five seasons of the combined offensive efforts of all 32 teams in the league. In the course of this titanic effort, you could travel to the moon and back, twice, if it were possible for football players to run to the moon, which it is not. Many have tried. Warren Moon, for instance—people thought he had a good shot, but no. Randy Moss made a bid—nope. It can’t be done.
Therefore, when Al Michaels calls “fourth and a million,” he is referring to a million yards on earth. This is clear now.
Two seasons ago, Philadelphia Eagles second-string quarterback Nick Foles led Philly’s storybook playoff run to Super Bowl victory. Not so long after that dizzying ascent to the sport’s pinnacle, Foles’ magic now escapes him. He occupies a slot on the Jacksonville Jaguars roster as the understudy to Gardner Minshew II, a person whose actual driver’s license looks like a fake ID. Minshew is such a sensation in Jacksonville that the team sold bandanas and costume mustaches to fans as part of a ticket promotion, in tribute to Minshew’s Ken Stabler-esque throwback look. With Foles underperforming, there have been no sales events to celebrate his trademark neck scruff.
Yet there is one place where the memory of Nick Foles will never die: the booth of CBS’ No. 1 announcing team. In Week 11, as Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz scrambled his way out of trouble, Jim Nantz announced, “Foles, able to avoid a sack!” During the Week 14 Chiefs-Patriots game, Tony Romo said that a New England decision to forgo a field goal was “not necessarily all about Nick Foles.” The name of the Patriots’ current kicker is Nick Folk. That said, Romo was still correct.
Troy Aikman likes to use “defense” as a verb that means “defend against”—as in, “That ball was thrown so perfectly, it’s almost impossible to defense.” The use of “defense” in this manner is perfectly valid English that, nonetheless, always sounds weird when Aikman says it.
Another Aikman tendency is more of a parlor trick (one that has been noted in Block & Tackle on occasion). The old Dallas quarterback has an unparalleled ability to construct sentences of outlandish length. When play-by-play announcer Joe Buck gives his partner the opportunity, Aikman will let a sentence run, adding one clause after another until, like a soup can rattling to the bottom of an empty stairwell, his thought process finally comes to a stop. During the Dallas-New England game in Week 12, Aikman unleashed a 41-second humdinger:
That’s how they get to 9-1, coming into this game, and that’s why they do have the lead, and the things that Dallas couldn’t do, they did, but they’ve been able to weather that, and so, the game’s gone pretty much how we had anticipated, and what’s now even more obvious is that when you have the wind at your back, you have to take advantage of it because trying to count on being able to even put the ball through the uprights into the wind, and of course the New England Patriots receive the ball here to start this second half, and for the third quarter, they will in fact have the wind at their back.
Sometimes, while he’s waiting for Troy Aikman to finish a sentence, Joe Buck will excuse himself from the booth and go call a baseball game for a while.
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.
In Week 14 NFL action, 12 games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, and 4 games were incorrect. (Overall season record: 124-86.)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
New York Jets vs. BALTIMORE RAVENS (timestamped pick)
Chicago Bears vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (Fox)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS vs. Cincinnati Bengals (CBS): As the 2019 NFL year draws to a close, all eyes are on the 10-3 New England Patriots and their quest for an undefeated season. Can the woeful Bengals pull off the upset and play spoiler to the Patriots’ quest? CBS will have its least important announcing team on hand to find out.
Denver Broncos vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (CBS): Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes can reportedly “grip and rip” the football, although the equipment manager wishes he would stop it.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS vs. Detroit Lions (Fox): This Sunday at Ford Field, the Detroit Lions plan to give away 20,000 Lions-branded Christmas stockings—the perfect way to make Santa Claus feel sorry for you.
HOUSTON TEXANS vs. Tennessee Titans (CBS)
MIAMI DOLPHINS vs. New York Giants (CBS): Head & Shoulders, a prominent hair-chemical manufacturing concern, is proud to honor Eli Manning for throwing the seventh-most passing touchdowns in NFL history. This achievement certainly puts Eli “head and shoulders” above the rest! Except for the other six guys.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES vs. Washington (Fox)
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. Carolina Panthers (Fox)
Cleveland Browns vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS (CBS): The QuantumPick Apparatus foretells a score of 4-2 in this contest.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. OAKLAND RAIDERS (CBS): What is it like to be the official reader-mail columnist for a bottom-dwelling team? To find out, let’s check in on “O-Zone,” in which Jaguars.com senior writer John Oehser fields questions from the public. The headline to this week’s column is “Yeah, probably.” “Let get to it,” Oehser begins with discernible dread. A Jags fan named Ryan writes the O-Zone to ask why the Jaguars’ offensive line is so bad. Oehser responds, in full, “I don’t know.” Later, Oehser tells another fan that season tickets to the team are a “tough sell,” and “only you can determine if it’s worth the bother.” John Oehser is my new favorite NFL columnist.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS vs. Los Angeles Chargers (CBS)
Atlanta Falcons vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (Fox): San Francisco tight end George Kittle has crafted the world’s first voodoo bobblehead doll.
LOS ANGELES RAMS vs. Dallas Cowboys (Fox)
Buffalo Bills vs. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Indianapolis Colts vs. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (ESPN): It’s rare to award the Most Valuable Player to someone on the losing side, but my Block & Tackle MVP for Week 14 went to one poor New Orleans Saints fan who saw his team lose to the San Francisco 49ers on a walkoff field goal—a kick that went through the uprights despite this fellow’s desperate effort to influence the path of the ball from his seat. With one feckless flail of his wrists, this tragic figure transitioned seamlessly from hope to disgust. Hopefully the spirits of our anonymous Saints booster have since brightened, and he’ll be back in the crowd this Monday, because you never know when the Saints might call on him again to rise from his seat and mutter “Engghhh!” in the general direction of the football.
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