“Football seems like the worst sport,” my friend Anna said to me as we shared drinks on a hot evening in August. “Yes! It is,” I responded. “And it is also the best sport.”
What had we been talking about? Which NFL debacle was the prelude to this exchange? I don’t remember. There are so many to choose from. Maybe it was Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback shadowbanned by the league for insufficient flag reverence. If you’re wondering the proper level of respect for the flag, the correct answer is to follow the NFL’s example: Procure the largest flag possible, and then make a film about your huge flag.
In NFL Films Presents: Giant American Flag, the league turns its potent mythmaking apparatus on Old Glory. This short documentary is a work of metaphor both purposeful and not. “That big flag has about 300 million stitches in it,” says Paul Swenson in one scene. He is the president of a company that makes football-field-sized flags. As he speaks, a piano rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner (a famous song about the flag) swells in the background. Swenson continues:
It represents the people in the country. I could be this little stitch over on the canton, and you could be a little stitch on the end of one stripe. I can’t worry about your stitch. I’ve got to take care of my stitch. … The integrity of the flag—we can be weak and have a little bit of a tear over here because there was an issue, but the rest of the flag can stay strong.
This is the earnest reflection of a person who takes justified pride in his work. Although on that note, I hope Swenson’s flags hold together better than the vision of America he conjures.
“One of my biggest fears is getting trapped underneath that thing,” says former NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison, an instance of Giant American Flag’s accidental poetry. Morrison articulates the true standard that Kaepernick failed to uphold, which is fear of the flag. Kaepernick was unafraid to construe the flag in a way that resonated with his experience of America, and for this he was shunned. Here is one reason football is the worst sport.
And yet, here is the existence of a thing called NFL Films Presents: Giant American Flag—one reason football is, to me, the best.
The sins of the NFL are innumerable, with more being discovered all the time. Misogyny and the moral decay of late capitalism ripple through NFL culture. The game consumes its players hit by hit. The team owners swindle taxpayers, solicit prostitutes, and host fundraisers for Trump. I shouldn’t watch. I certainly shouldn’t accept money to write about it.
Yet I am a hopeless case. I love games. I love TV. I love pop-culture spectacle. And I love to share those things with you. So here I am.
Also, if it comes as any consolation, I’m getting paid very little.
I consider quitting football. But I’ve been a fan so long, my senses are attuned to its rhythms. My eyes extrapolate the arc of a pass, track the collapse of an offensive line—with no willful effort on my part. When I hear an announcer say that players on the field are “pushing,” my ears bristle with anticipation: Will they also say “shoving”? They always do. It is forever “pushing and shoving.” I find this both idiotic and ineffably reassuring. In this manner, televised football draws me back under its spell. I am weak.
The NFL is a shameful enterprise. Come wallow in it with me. Block & Tackle is backle, and we have a dress to talk about.
To begin the inaugural broadcast of the NFL’s 100th season last night—Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears—NBC announcer Al Michaels teased viewers that he was observing the “spirit of the roaring ’20s.” We soon saw Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth in the booth, clad in period garb. With a “PRESS” card poking out from his hat band, Michaels cut the profile of an editor-in-chief in an era when print was king. The gangly Collinsworth, in a wide-lapeled suit with green and pink pinstripes, looked more like the dandiest oat farmer this side of the county line.
All in good fun. Then Michaels tossed to sideline reporter Michele Tafoya on the field, and the fashion turned serious. Because Tafoya is a pro. She has to be. She excels at a job that few people appreciate. I once grabbed a screenshot of the overstuffed notebook she prepares for a single game. It’s a raft of material that goes mostly unused on the air, but it’s preparation she needs so she can respond to narratives when they develop in the game—or inject storylines when they don’t.
Tafoya’s professionalism extends to the sartorial realm. She is stylish as fuck. And she is not going to allow some producer with a goofy gimmick to put her on air in a Halloween costume. Instead, Tafoya donned an ensemble with an air of the speakeasy. It was like a ’20s flapper dress, but with more structure, so Tafoya had a strong silhouette befitting a sports broadcaster.
“Back in the early days of the NFL,” Tafoya said with a sashay, “outfits like this were in fashion. Field goal kickers? Not so much.” In an instant, Tafoya pivoted to a package about the Chicago Bears’ kicking woes, her confident delivery smoothing out the rough edges of what would appear to be an impossible segue. It’s nice that Tafoya makes the clothes look good. More importantly, she knows how to make the broadcast look good, and that’s what makes her special.
Both head coaches who faced off in the season opener had reason to be nervous. Matt Nagy, entering his second year as coach of the Bears, was desperate to escape the shadow of a bizarre “double doink” field-goal miss by Cody Parkey that ended Chicago’s campaign in the playoffs. Nagy inexplicably fanned the flames of this storyline in the offseason, with counterproductive stunts like a training-camp audition session in which eight kickers were made to attempt a field goal from 43 yards—the same distance as Parkey’s fateful flub. Six of the eight missed, and Nagy succeeded only in deepening the Bears’ pathos.
The lead-up to Green Bay head coach Matt Lafleur’s rookie season was also fraught, as NFL beat writers feasted on reports of tension between Lafleur and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Both coaches were under a lot of pressure. So it’s understandable they made some oversights in their preparations. For instance, judging by the action last night, nobody on either offense had practiced any plays whatsoever.
Here is your Aaron Rodgers highlight of the night. A ball that bounced off Matt Nagy’s foot. Yes, Rodgers led a touchdown drive. Even so, this play best encapsulates what the viewing public saw from Green Bay’s offense on Thursday.
As seemingly every announcer of a Chicago Bears game will tell you, Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky can make plays with his legs. Here is one such play, courtesy of an offensive line scheme apparently devised by André Maginot. “Sacre bleu! Les lunettes ne font rien!” cried the hapless Bears.
At one point, Chicago somehow faced first down and 40 yards to go, unless this was a mass hallucination, which would be less alarming.
Football isn’t just a sport on television! You can also do it yourself, although this is not advised.
As a public service for so-called “do-it-at-home-rs,” the following list of footballs for sale in the Chicagoland area is provided.
Football, $10 — Aurora
Visit an average sporting goods store to purchase a football, and you’ll be pressured with the classic “upsell”—those aggressive pleas to add the extended warranty, buffing powder, airline travel case, etc. You know the drill, I hope, because I haven’t been to a sporting goods store in a while, so I need you to fill in the blanks.
A neighborhood classified-ad transaction presents no such hassle. “Here is a stout football for a sawbuck.” Simple. And for no extra charge, with no aggressive sales tactics, you receive a tee for the ball.
The tee is a choice add-on. Professional place-kickers use this tee to hold the ball steady, so they can kick it very hard. See, kickers take all of their problems from their mind, transfer them to the ball, and whack it really hard. As hard as they gosh darn can, goddamn it.
Then all the other players chase after the ball because they, too, have metaphorically filled the football with their woes and anguish. They yearn to possess it, in order to unleash their own violent catharsis. However, only one player may catch the ball, often by making a “fair catch.” A fair catch is the player’s way of saying, “The problems belong to me now. Worry no longer.” So everyone else calms down. Play may now begin.
This sequence is called a “kickoff,” because that is easier for broadcasters to pronounce than “catharsis frenzy.”
An epinephrine injector is also included in the $10 price, in case the purchaser is allergic to footballs.
Football, $8 — Des Plaines
This football has stripes, which makes for a more cheerful football. A striped football always looks like it is having fun. That’s why there are no stripes on footballs in the NFL, where the appearance of fun is considered detrimental to the integrity of the game.
You might be saying, “I don’t know why I would pay $8 for a football, even if it does have flattering stripes, when I could get that other football for $10, and that other one comes with a tee, no extra charge.” Of course you are right. The trouble is, if you are reading this, it means that you foolishly continued to read the column. Meanwhile, some other, more cutthroat reader has quickly purchased the $10 football. You’d better hurry up and buy the $8 football before it’s too late! If you are reading this sentence, it is too late.
Child-sized football furnishings (2), $30 — Glenview
This charming two-piece furniture set is perfect for the NFL household with two young kids. One child can sit on the large football-shaped chair. The other child can look on while you slide the football-shaped ottoman under the first child’s feet for added comfort. “Maybe…maybe I could sit on the smaller football?” the seatless child will ask. Respond, with a grimace, “You could, honey—if only you loved football a little more.”
Throughout the season, switch the children’s roles with maddening caprice so they will strive to earn your elusive approval. Once the playoffs roll around, you’ll have a couple of NFL superfans on your hands! And by they time they realize you were messing with them, they will be full-grown adults reading the side effects on a bottle of Celexa. Plus, the football-shaped chair swivels!
Former A.V. Club editor-in-chief Josh Modell is a smart man who makes many excellent decisions. For instance, recently Josh suggested we eat at a restaurant in my neighborhood called Baker Miller. I told him that Baker Miller is overrated, but he applied his gentle brand of passive aggression, so we ate there. The egg sandwich that I ordered was excellent. Josh is usually right. It’s the most infuriating thing about him.
Another good decision that Josh has made is to own a pair of Converse shoes that look like footballs. Now, Josh has less interest in football than anyone else I know. One night a few years back, I had to watch Sunday Night Football at his house—I forget the circumstances, but it must have been a last resort. He spent most of the game arguing with Comcast over a mailing label to return his cable box. Josh would rather talk to the cable company than watch a football game with his friend, yet still he had the laudable impulse to acquire a pair of pigskin-evoking Chuck Taylors. Everyone enjoys the game in their own way.
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that simulates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the one 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.
I’ll explain it this way. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, there is a bartender named Guinan played by Whoopi Goldberg. Guinan wears funny hats and gives advice to members of the crew who need to experience character development. Sometimes, she also uses a special power. Guinan can sense when a timeline is “wrong.”
On one occasion, the Enterprise is stuck in an alternate universe where the Federation is at war with the Klingons, and the lighting on the bridge is very dim (because of war). Nobody in the crew knows they have been transported to a different timeline; they think the lights have always been that dim. But Guinan knows. So she goes to Captain Picard’s office and says, hey, things just don’t feel right.
(Guinan always speaks about this timeline business in vague, mystical terms because what she’s really telling Picard is, “We need to get things back to normal before the next episode,” but she can’t say that out loud. That’s okay. Captain Picard always gets the message, and he steers the Enterprise safely to page one of the following week’s script.)
Treat the Block & Tackle picks as your own personal Guinan. If you watch an NFL game that differs from a pick in this column, that’s a sign that you are in a wrong timeline. You should proceed to the nearest stable timeline as soon as possible.
You can also examine other aspects of our daily existence for signs that reality is broken, although this is not advised.
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
Green Bay Packers vs. CHICAGO BEARS (NBC): See, here’s proof already. There’s no denying that we saw four quarters of wrong-timeline football last night. (Pick timestamped via Twitter.)
BUFFALO BILLS vs. New York Jets (CBS): Buffalo long snapper Reid Ferguson was recently looking for pimento cheese, and before you say, “Just go to Wegmans,” he thought of that already. Instead Ferguson asked his Twitter followers to help him find pimento cheese.
Once he had visited “3-4 of the suggested locations” (he lost count after two) with no success, Ferguson endeavored to make his own. And after that, this story had a happy ending: Ferguson did not post any more photographs of homemade cheese. However, Ferguson’s superhuman dedication to his personal goals will serve the Bills well on Sunday, provided the game comes down to long-snapping, as it typically does.
BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. Miami Dolphins (CBS)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (CBS): The Kansas City Chiefs mascot is a gigantic ferret named KC Wolf. According to his official page on the Chiefs website, KC Wolf “offers a variety of programs for churches and faith-based organizations” that “center around his faith and the importance it plays in his life.” If this googly-eyed burlap monster doesn’t make your kids find God, nothing will.
Tennessee Titans vs. CLEVELAND BROWNS (CBS): In a recent Instagram Stories Q&A session, Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett received these three questions in a row: “Where’s the best place to eat in College Station?”, “So if you were a dinosaur what would be the first thing you would eat?”, and “favorite place to eat in cleveland”. Browns fans, if you’re hungry, there’s a guy down the road in Buffalo who can hook you up with some cheese.
Los Angeles Rams vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (Fox)
Washington vs. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (Fox): The QuantumPicks apparatus predicts a final score of 4-0.
Atlanta Falcons vs. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (Fox)
“The Horse Bowl” — Indianapolis Colts vs. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS (CBS): This horse-vs.-horse matchup is bad news for the Indianapolis Colts, who have an all-time record of 20-30 against other teams named after horses.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (CBS): Watch the Seattle sidelines closely for a treat. Nobody whips their headset off with more vigor—and, at the same time, grace—than Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Fox)
New York Giants vs. DALLAS COWBOYS (Fox): Being an NFL player has its perks. New York Giants linebacker David Mayo appears to be one of the first people to get his hands on one of those weird Nintendo exercise hoops.
Detroit Lions vs. ARIZONA CARDINALS (Fox)
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (NBC)
Houston Texans vs. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (ESPN)
DENVER BRONCOS vs. Oakland Raiders (ESPN): The game itself will probably be dreadful, but if you’re willing to stay up for the back end of the traditional Week 1 Monday Night Football doubleheader, it’s usually fun to marvel at the nonexistent chemistry of the one-off commentating crew that ESPN cobbles together for this late-night West Coast game. This year, Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick will attempt to entertain the bleary-eyed fans still hanging on for the 16th game of the opening weekend. See you on the other side.