No technological trick has done more to shape our experience of TV football than the slow motion instant replay. It’s a visual storytelling device that exposes the grace and athleticism that are otherwise invisible amid lightning-fast action. Slow motion lets us study the terpsichorean footwork of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey as he weaves through a phalanx of defenders. By dilating time, we can see the face muscles of New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold contort as his offensive line allows the opposition to sack him yet again. We can even track the tumble of a ball as it doinks off the goalpost—all of the sport’s greatest moments, made even greatest-er.
But one time, years ago, someone had a bright idea. What if, instead of using slow motion to showcase crucial moments of the game, you used slow motion for whatever the hell you wanted? Thus the slo-mo reaction shot was born. Here is how you make a slo-mo reaction shot: Point your camera at a person doing anything, and slow them down.
Slo-mo reaction shots impart a cinematic air on the gridiron scrum. When you see a player shout “Oh no!” in real time after his teammate drops a pass, it’s a down-to-earth response to a typical play. See that same player, nostrils flaring outward, eyebrows arching upward, as he silently bellows “Ohhhhhhh nooooooooo…!” Now it’s a demigod beholding an epic turn of fate. We are suckers for frame rate.
Fox is not the only outlet that employs slo-mo reaction shots. Most national major-sport broadcasts do. But Fox has made these glacial candids a central part of its visual language. The network’s NFL coverage uses slo-mo reactions as commercial bumpers—both leading into and coming out of breaks—and to cap off replays of game action, before the director transitions back to a live image. They show up constantly.
These high-def Polaroids are emotional punctuation marks to remind the audience how they might feel about the football they just witnessed. It’s the same as Jim looking at the camera on The Office to affirm that we are all uncomfortable with what Michael just said. Late in Thursday night’s Dallas Cowboys-Chicago Bears game, after a pitiful Dallas fourth down, viewers got a slo-mo glimpse of Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky being hoisted on his teammate’s shoulders, or at least to near-shoulder level. That particular picture had nothing to do with the preceding down; it was there to reiterate that Chicago is happy when Dallas (the opponent) encounters misfortune. You already knew that. But you already knew Michael was being a jerk, too. The reaction shot is there to make us feel common cause.
A slo-mo reaction can be an effective visual flourish, and Fox employs talented camera operators—the picture above of Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd (Bears #94), shouting and shaking his head at his vanquished rivals, is an evocative piece of TV sports photography.
Overall, though, the slo-mo technique suffers from Fox’s rote overuse of it. The visual flow of a Fox NFL broadcast relies so heavily on slo-mo reactions that producers end up running any marginally emotive moment through the slow-o-matic, which becomes a struggle to derive drama from the banal. At the close of the Bears’ 31-24 victory, Joe Buck tossed to commercial as the broadcast featured three successive images of Cowboys blinking. They were blinking glumly—this was the blinking of defeated men, to be sure. But the fact remains, it was three guys blinking. Even the magic of frame rate only goes so far.
Ad Man X is an award-winning creative executive at a major national agency in Chicago. He has overseen TV ad campaigns, including Super Bowl commercials, for a variety of the major global brands that decide what we eat, who we admire, and how society will function. He has agreed to share his expertise by commenting, under cover of anonymity, on ads that are in heavy rotation during NFL football. (Ad Man X does not comment on any TV commercials in which he is professionally involved—all participation in Block & Tackle is completely unprofessional.)
For this edition of Ad Man X, our expert surprised me with highly relevant Terry Bradshaw experience, soothed me with memories of a soft teddy bear, and delighted me with tales of giant bows and finance bros.
Hall Of Fame quarterback and current Fox football analyst Terry Bradshaw sits at a table with a roast turkey and a nephew whose name, according to Bradshaw, is JAKE!!!!! Bradshaw describes a gambling scheme, concocted by Fox Sports, in which citizens gamble on the results of football contests for a cash jackpot that is drawn from Bradshaw’s own funds. Bradshaw seems to be grasping many of the details for the first time, even though he is the one describing them to us—with occasional help from JAKE!!!!! The implications of the scheme enrage Bradshaw. Facing imminent poverty, he brutalizes the turkey.
Ad Man X: Without revealing too much about myself, I have worked with the master, Terry Bradshaw. His onscreen persona is—a persona. [Laughs.] He’s pretty mild, not introverted, but he’s a rather quiet guy in real life. When you turn the camera on, he turns into that monster that we see.
Block & Tackle: I thought you were going to tell us he’s the same doofus from TV. So he plays his role well, then.
Ad Man X: Really, he only has one speed [as a performer], and it’s what you see on the screen. I was in some voiceover recording sessions with him, and I would say, “Okay, Terry, let’s try it again. If you can maybe just dial it down a little bit?” And he would still scream. “Okay, great. Got it. Now maybe let’s try one where you’re at a whisper”—but it’s always at 11. He can only play that character one way. But he does it well, and he’s made a huge career out of it.
B&T: I’m a little concerned about Terry right now because Fox just hired Rob Gronkowski. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of Gronk’s work, but they put him right next to Terry Bradshaw on the desk. And Gronk’s being a dumbass, saying things he shouldn’t say, all the guys are laughing at him. Now, that’s Terry’s job. I’m looking at Terry, and let’s say he’s not the strapping pocket passer he once was. I worry that maybe Fox is ushering him toward the door.
AMX: Oh no. There’s a younger, dumber model?
B&T: Yes and yes.
AMX: Aw. I hope Terry is America’s idiot for many more years.
B&T: I enjoy him in this gambling commercial, despite myself.
AMX: [For a commercial director], if you are handed Terry Bradshaw, it’s like being handed a puppy. You just turn the camera on and let him go. Something hilarious is gonna happen.
B&T: Do you think he’s ad-libbing at all in this ad, like you said Peyton Manning would do sometimes?
AMX: No, no. In my experience, you give Terry the lines, and he just delivers them, at 11. He’s not very good off the cuff, but he gives you exactly what you need.
I was struck by his mangling of that turkey. I wonder if, on the day of the shoot, they needed to add a little extra bit of stupidity to this, and they decided to have him whack away at this turkey.
B&T: It’s funny you bring that up. When I saw that turkey bit, I thought, “What a great cutaway.” Because when you’re dealing with an athlete, you need to be able to cut together short takes. Maybe they only got it right for half a line at a time. If you have a good, repeatable cutaway shot like this one, you can stitch together all the little bits that worked. It really helps you in the edit bay, right?
AMX: Yes, 100 percent. You’re right on, because there’s no—Terry didn’t know any of his lines before he showed up. Then they were like, “Okay, Terry! You’re going to deliver this monologue to camera, and it’s 30 seconds!” He’d just say, “What now?” So a lot of times, you break it up into easily digested bites for the athletes. I’m sure they gave him each line, and they ran it five times in a row. And you’re right, they would have needed to figure out a way to edit this, so they got the great turkey mangle.
B&T: The great mangle. Someone put Terry’s robe on and tore up that turkey to get those shots—or do you think Terry got in there and did the mangling himself?
AMX: [Laughs.] No, as I’ve said before, he probably gave them the best 45 minutes he could spare. He knocked it out, put his coat on, and left. The turkey—that could have even been a different day. They have to light that turkey completely differently [from the Bradshaw shots]. It’s a whole setup to make those turkey shots. There are probably like 14 turkeys, and they’re just blasting through them. [Laughs.]
A senior citizen and her husband struggle to put a storage bin on a high closet shelf. They moan and groan amid the intense physical exertion. They emerge from the closet to encounter their grandson. He has overheard all their yowling and meowling, so naturally, he examines their clothing. It is not enough to suspect that his grandparents were having sex in that closet: He needs to know. Their wrinkled garments are all the confirmation he requires to accept his sick fantasy as truth.
Later, after the grandparents purchase a bottle of Downy laundry chemicals, they find that their clothes do not wrinkle so easily. Now they can rut like feral hogs in whatever closet they damn well please, and their nosy little shit of a grandson doesn’t suspect a thing! Another problem solved by Downy.
AMX: [Long exhale.] God. Okay. This one makes me uncomfortable. Let me just say, off the bat, that there is only one sex-misunderstanding bit that has ever worked, and it’s Tango & Cash, Teri Hatcher and Kurt Russell. No one has ever done it better.
B&T: What the hell is this vintage pop culture reference? Are you auditioning for an A.V. Club job?
AMX: Yes. I’m planning on being fired on my way home from this business trip.
B&T: There are a bunch of Downy commercials featuring this kid, but this one stands out, for obvious reasons. I don’t need to hear the words “Pop-Pop” come out of the kid’s mouth—I don’t need any of this. We’ve talked about commercials that are annoying, but this one aims to be borderline repulsive. Is this really a good strategy for Downy?
AMX: I don’t think so. I was utterly grossed out. I don’t think “gross out” is an emotion that makes someone stop in the fabric softener aisle. I cannot imagine what the client was thinking to say, “Yeah! Let’s do it. Let’s gross out America. Sincerely, Downy.”
B&T: You know what a good fabric softener concept is? That Snuggle bear. Do they still use that teddy bear? [They do. —Ed.]
AMX: Right. The adorable bear that would fall back into the soft clothes. That’s what I want from my fabric-softener creative. I want “bear equals soft.” Not “bear equals toilet” like Charmin. But “bear equals soft, fluffy garments.”
B&T: In preparing for our chat, I thought about the creative process behind this ad. I kept coming back to that Simpsons moment where Snake successfully pretends to be the “wallet inspector,” and he says, “Whoa, I can’t believe that worked!” Was this an “I can’t believe that worked!” moment for the team that pitched this idea and got it approved?
AMX: In my experience, it’s one of two things: It could be that they gave [the client] a big pile of scripts. They created 10 or 12 scripts. And the creative director, their boss, said, “All right, if you guys really want to include the old-people-fucking spot, you can throw it in. There’s no way they’re going to buy it.” It was just meeting fodder, right? “Let’s give them something to kill.” And then they presented it, and the client’s like, “Let’s do that!” And they just look at each other like “What?”
Either that, or, they presented it, and the client said, “No way,” and some big stuffed-shirt creative director bullied their way into selling this. Stomped their feet. Said, “This is football! Think about your audience! These are neanderthals we’re advertising to here. These are guys that want to see gross stuff.”
Either way, the client made a terrible mistake.
Some guy who bought a big red bow can’t find a place to hide that big bow. He needs to keep it out of sight, or else his wife will know that he bought a new car—and a stupid giant bow, to boot. He looks for a hiding place in his big house with his little son, who is just happy to get some attention. Finally, the guy brings the bow to the office, where there is no wife or son at all! Perfect. Later, he gives his wife the car, because whatever. Oh, and the bow is on the car. He was wondering where he put it.
B&T: The Lexus “December To Remember” big red bows have been around so long, they’re a cultural icon now, in the pantheon of football commercials. Much more successful than the short-lived “August To Forget” bows.
AMX: So, I’ve worked with the car industry. And—these fucking bows. A car company like Lexus banks their whole fourth quarter on these things. People will walk into Lexus dealers, and the salesperson will say, “Can I interest you in—” and the customers just say, “No, no—where’s the bow? I want my bow, and I want it on a new car.” They have to stock these giant bows. These are real things people want and will demand from a car dealer. There’s a panic that sets in at the end of the year: “Oh, God! We’ve run out of bows! Get the bow man on the phone.”
You know the [ad agency] creative team, every year, gets the red bow assignment, and they have to skin that cat again. Because you know there’s no way these car companies are going to walk away from this bow cash cow. So this year, they came up with “Bow Caper.”
B&T: They barely show the cars. The bow really is the thing at this point.
AMX: Yup. This is geared toward those guys that make $3 million. If you’re a big-time finance guy wondering, “What do I get my wife?”—they see this commercial and they say, “Ah! Sheet metal and a bow.”
Perspicacious and stout-spirited Block & Tackle reader T. Cole Newton, whose name is fun to say, writes to celebrate what he calls “Thanks-kicking”—another appealing utterance. T. Cole’s wordplay refers to the bounty of improbable special-teams play that the football public enjoyed as the NFL presented a tripleheader to mark America’s day of gluttony and resentment, known as Thursday.
Game 1 [Lions vs. Bears] had an accidental onside kick, which I’m not sure has ever happened. Game 2 [Cowboys vs. Bills] had a staggering number of easy misses and also the always lovable successful doink. Game 3 [Falcons vs. Saints] had […] three consecutive successful onside kicks (including one called back for a dubious penalty).
As T. Cole notes, it did later emerge that the Lions’ onside kick strategy—“whack the ball off some guy’s leg and jump on it”—was unintentional. Lions kicker Matt Prater told reporters that he “just got lucky” on the play. Prater admits he was trying to hit a squib kick—a short kickoff. Instead, he ended up half-bludgeoning the ball, perhaps because he got scared of it for a moment, or some other embarrassing reason. Since the blunder went Detroit’s way, Prater could have stayed quiet and let us believe that he is the world’s cleverest special-teams tactician. So you have to admire his honesty, the clumsy oaf.
An NFL rule change in 2018 made it difficult for the kicking team to recover an onside kick—for safety reasons, players on the kicking team can no longer get a running start. Last season, only 7.7 percent of teams managed to get an onside kick under the new rule, whereas the average for the previous five seasons was about 16 percent. The prohibitive difficulty has drained much of the excitement from a play that was a longshot to begin with. All of which is to say that it would have been nice if Matt Prater really had unlocked a brilliant maneuver that would make onside kicks feasible again.
We wanted to believe. At least, I wanted to, and so did Fox analyst Troy Aikman, who narrated the replay with palpable admiration for the Lions’ innovative approach. “It looks like that was by design! … It wasn’t a missed kick,” Aikman said of the missed kick. “You can see that the formation is angling down that way,” he continued. He drew some lines on a paused image, like Glenn Beck marking up a chalkboard, to illustrate his conspiracy theory of the brilliant cross-field cuts that the Detroit special teamers supposedly took on the play.
Then the video rolled, and it showed the Lions players running pretty much straight upfield, until they noticed a ball bouncing on the ground, at which point they veered toward it—as football players will do. There were no special angles. It was happenstance masquerading as genius. I know how you felt, Troy. I wanted to believe it was real, too. But all the telestrator lines in the world cannot make it so.
Later, as NFL Thanksgiving Day neared its end, special teams enthusiasts received a surprise dessert in the form of the Atlanta Falcons’ nutty finish. So if you are allergic to nuts, I hope you avoided the fourth-quarter sequence in which the Falcons recovered an onside kick, saw that play undone by penalty, then recovered the ball again on the re-kick, and then completed another onside kick to begin their next drive. “Wake the family up! We’re not done,” tweeted the Atlanta Falcons social media team, parroting a great play-by-play call by NBC’s Mike Tirico. So it was that young children and groggy aunts and uncles all across Georgia were roused from their post-turkey slumber just in time to watch the Falcons’ offense sputter pathetically and lose. Happy Thanksgiving, Atlanta Falcons nation! Your exquisite torment will apparently never end.
Let me say a little more on the Terry Bradshaw discussion from Ad Man X—in particular, the clip of overeager newcomer Rob Gronkowski joining the Fox NFL studio panel in Week 12. At halftime of a New England Patriots-Dallas Cowboys game, Gronkowski got a little carried away with his commentary (I use the term loosely) and blustered his way into a wisecrack about Cowboys owner Jerry Jones—a joke that naively toddled over the line from inane to nasty. The cautious, league-friendly network shows don’t cross that border.
The other panelists fell apart in giddy disbelief at Gronk’s faux pas, but Bradshaw did not join in the giggles. He slapped the nervous newbie on the back and calmed him down—calmed him in that football-guy way of shouting at you. “Take it easy. Good job! Good job! We’re breaking you in,” Bradshaw yelled, in part to ensure Gronkowski had no opportunity to resume speaking.
The gesture was also sweet in its way. After all, Gronkowski could be Fox’s idea of a Terry Bradshaw succession plan. His placement next in line to Bradshaw at the desk is ominous. So Bradshaw has little reason to offer Gronk a steadying hand. But that’s what he did. Loudly, in a manner that made clear to the home audience that Rob Gronkowski is a complete greenhorn, Bradshaw shared his heart with Gronk.
The chuckling men pulled themselves together. The segment proceeded uneventfully. Anchor Curt Menefee tossed to commercial. The panelists’ mics were left open for a couple of seconds before the network cut away, so you could eavesdrop on their stray chatter. While this type of moment seems spontaneous, it’s a common sound-mixing choice for halftime shows—and, by the same token, talk shows and game shows. A chatty interlude, squeezed between the host’s “back after this break!” and the actual break, creates a subliminal impression that the party keeps going even after you leave. The hope is that this makes you more eager to return.
Terry Bradshaw has done TV for a long time. He is attuned to the rhythms of the studio. He knows how to exploit the curious interstices of a halftime show’s choppy format. And he felt like poking Gronkowski once more. So Bradshaw perched in wait for the chatty interlude. And the instant Menefee finished saying, “Stick around,” Bradshaw muttered to Gronkowski, the jittery new kid on the television block, “Didn’t know you had to work this hard, did you?” Laughs all around. Cut to black. The finesse of Bradshaw’s execution completed the joke. It was a crafty little dig, good-natured and puckish. Yet not quite nasty—Bradshaw knows better.
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 12 & Week 13 NFL action, 14 games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, and 16 games were incorrect. (The QuantumPicks for Week 13 were dispensed via tweet—unseemly, but necessary.) I am deeply troubled by this latest incursion of unreality on our already-fragile timeline. I may not look upset. In fact, it may appear that I am just blinking. But slow down the footage, and you will perceive my anguish. Slow it down a little more. Slower. There—see it now? Deeply troubled.
(Overall season record: 112-82.)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
Dallas Cowboys vs. CHICAGO BEARS (timestamped pick)
Carolina Panthers vs. ATLANTA FALCONS (Fox): In the 2019 season, teams named after birds are 5-2-1 against teams named after cats, on account of Bengals are cats.
Washington vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (Fox)
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS vs. New Orleans Saints (Fox)
BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. Buffalo Bills (CBS)
Cincinnati Bengals vs. CLEVELAND BROWNS (CBS)
Miami Dolphins vs. NEW YORK JETS (CBS)
Denver Broncos vs. HOUSTON TEXANS (CBS)
Detroit Lions vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Fox)
Indianapolis Colts vs. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (CBS): The QuantumPick Apparatus foresees a final score of 5-2 in this contest.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Fox)
Tennessee Titans vs. OAKLAND RAIDERS (CBS)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (CBS)
PITTSBURGH STEELERS vs. Arizona Cardinals (CBS)
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. Los Angeles Rams (NBC)
New York Giants vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (ESPN)
Well, well, well! There are no teams on a bye this week. There are 32 football squadrons in the league, and all 32 of them will play football on Sunday. Looks like I was right all along: I said that National Football League commissioner Roger Stokoe Goodell would put an end to this “bye week” nonsense, and indeed he has. He brought the troops in line.
Head injuries, the broken officiating system, violent off-the-field player behavior, racist owners—Roger Stokoe Goodell will get to these problems in time. For now he has attended to his most important duty: Ensuring that every Sunday, huge men get out there on the field to run into each other real fast, again and again, and also there is a ball. Thank you, Mr. Goodell. A grateful nation tips its oversized novelty foam hat to you.
If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. You can also reach me via Twitter. Thank you for reading, and for the funny and smart comments. Keep on long snappin’.