The NFL playoffs are not just a showcase for the players. The postseason, with its gigantic TV audiences, also presents a chance for the graphic designers at our nation’s leading sports broadcasters to strut. Toiling at their workstations right up until game day, the networks’ artists compete to dazzle viewers with flashy visual sequences that illustrate fundamental truths of our football existence—which guy gained more yards than the other guy, for instance, or which guy’s Achilles tendon snapped. Having nothing better to do, Block & Tackle kept a close eye on the graphics of the Wild Card games, and here’s what I saw, from the garish to the gorgeous, and often both at once.
As many playoff teams do on the field, NBC’s graphic designers started the postseason with a careful, conservative approach. In the first quarter of the Seahawks-Eagles game, viewers saw the above list of Seattle Seahawks running backs and their various body parts that the maw of football has torn asunder. It’s a fine graphic. Functional, like a cup of auto-repair waiting room coffee. We get the message: Here are some human beings, here is how they have been maimed.
Granted, the sequence does have one burst of action. After we’ve looked at these cartoon representations of badly hurt men for a few seconds, pow, this other guy swoops in! It’s Marshawn Lynch. He gets a larger picture because he’s more famous, and because he didn’t suffer grotesque physical misfortune like those other three slackers, whose names you already forgot.
In the second quarter, madness set in, finally. “ROAD TO THE PLAYOFFS,” warns a sun-weathered road sign in this particular hallucination. The quarterbacks of the season’s top passing teams jog into view. They are weary from their journey through the arid wasteland that apparently leads to the playoffs. Exhausted, they stop, sprout footballs from their hands, and they throw the footballs. “We’re doomed! I should never have trusted you, football!” says Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott as he tosses his pigskin aside, breaking into sobs. Then the quarterbacks fall dead, as players from the season’s top rushing teams hurdle over their spent carcasses. “Hooray!” say these players who are good at carrying the football, and therefore survived. The chilling moral becomes manifest: Your vaunted passing game is no use in the desert.
That is how to make a good graphic.
“It’s been a few minutes since we looked at a picture of Marshawn Lynch,” said someone, so this was rectified. In the above flight of fancy, Lynch, a player who one could imagine running through a brick wall, literally does so. It is a more coherent metaphor than the desert road race, but a less adventurous one.
The words “BEAST MODE” appear on the screen, as is required whenever Lynch is discussed on television. Then, a twist: Lynch smashes through the very wall on which the words were printed. The Space Needle can be glimpsed through the wreckage, so we know which city Lynch is terrorizing. The citizens of Seattle devise a plan: “Perhaps if we print Lynch’s eye-popping postseason statistics on the walls, he will be less inclined to destroy them!” they muse. This does not work, and further walls are leveled.
Finally, a San Francisco 49er appears to grab Lynch after the third wall goes down, and Lynch concedes that enough is enough—he has made his point. If any members of the Philadelphia Eagles defense were a brick wall, they likely would have been intimidated by Lynch’s display, but the Eagles played their brick walls at wide receiver on Sunday.
Sometimes you have a moment when you feel in sync with the universe, and for me, seeing the phrase “Birds vs. Birds in NFL postseason history” on national TV was one such experience. A lavish investigation of bird teams who competed other bird teams is, in the opinion of Block & Tackle, the finest possible use of the National Broadcasting Company’s limited resources. They may not have the money to investigate an internal corporate culture that enabled sexual misconduct, but here is what NBC can do for you today: NBC can festoon Philadelphia’s stadium with a fearsome hawk, a daunting falcon, a ferocious eagle, and a cardinal.
There’s a neat statistical hook to this avian extravaganza, too. Before Sunday’s game, the home team was undefeated in bird-vs.-bird matchups. But Seattle broke that perfect streak with their defeat of the Eagles, so we’re probably not going to see another awesome postseason bird-on-bird graphic for a while. Thanks a lot, Seattle.
NBC’s overall grade: Seven desiccated quarterback corpses out of 10.
Three players in the league accrued at least 20 passing touchdowns and five running touchdowns this season. On Saturday, ESPN revealed the names of these players as if they were prizes behind the three doors of the long-running game show Let’s Make A Deal. Again, it felt like the television was speaking directly to me.
In this football-themed game show fantasy, the players behind Doors No. 1 and No. 2 are Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, people who an informed NFL fan would expect to see on a list of the league’s most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks.
But then behind Door No. 3—what’s this? Sunglasses-wearing, skyward-pointing Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen? Gasp! Surprise!
ESPN’s zany football animations—a bright spot of the network’s production—boast an obsessive attention to detail, and this one is no exception. The design of the big doors in the Josh Allen graphic echoes the doors of Deal’s definitive Monty Hall run in the ’60s and ’70s. Even the curtains at the edges of ESPN’s ersatz Deal evoke the greenish drapes that drooped around the periphery of Hall’s old stomping grounds.
ESPN announcer Joe Tessitore remarked that Allen’s truck camper and barbecue setup are a reference to Buffalo Bills tailgate culture (and what a proud culture it is). Tessitore was certainly correct about this. Yet the truck also serves as a sidelong reference to a Let’s Make A Deal tradition known as the “Zonk”—a giant booby prize that informs a player that fate has turned against them. Allen’s camper resembles the old jalopies that Deal would trot out to ruin a contestant’s day, such as the “laundry truck” seen above. And it is safe to presume that, like the laundry truck, the camper is also occupied by wet, sudsy, half-naked Let’s Make A Deal announcer Jay Stewart, who would fit right in at a Bills tailgate.
Compared to the Let’s Make A Deal sequence, ESPN’s “NFL portrait museum” is a rather less cheerful affair. Inexplicably, this vignette takes place in a basement that, by all appearances, is used for sex torture. On this day, however, the space has been retrofitted and opened to the public as a slapdash NFL museum. Apparently the proprietor of this BDSM dungeon is something of a tinkerer, and they whipped up a mechanized exhibit that readily converts from a “MOST RUSH YARDS” display to a “MOST SCRIMMAGE YARDS” gallery—a handy space-saver for those who do not have room both in their erotic prison.
ESPN’s overall grade: 10 nipple clamps out of 10.
(By the way, Danny Heifetz wrote an article recently at The Ringer about Monday Night Football lead animator David Sparrgrove, with some nice insights into the creative process behind these loopy football cartoons.)
CBS’ approach to graphics is always more constrained than its peers, but still, the Tennessee Titans-New England Patriots contest was a lackluster effort from the House That Phil Simms Built. The Tom Brady comparison above is a representative example. As you can see, prior to Saturday, Brady had 40 playoff starts and 30 wins, while his fellow AFC playoff quarterbacks had much less. This is a legible, economical presentation of data that tells its story in a single glance—who needs that?
What if, instead, Tom Brady were wrestling an alligator, and he’s standing on top of a pile of 40 other alligators (representing playoff starts), 30 of whom are dazed or unconscious, and the other 10 are looking pretty happy, and then we pull back and we see the other quarterbacks being eaten alive by four baby alligators who are stronger than they look, but still have some maturing to do? That would make a lot more sense.
CBS had a “players who scored postseason touchdowns on their birthday” graphic ready in case Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry found his way into the end zone, and Henry did just that. Here’s another missed opportunity: tabular data presented in the form of a table. No thank you. I would prefer to receive this information in the form a football-toting CGI Derrick Henry who pops out of a birthday cake while Steve Van Buren, Larry Csonka, Calvin Hill, and Nate Wright chug beers and carry on. Maybe Let’s Make A Deal announcer Jay Stewart is there, too. Seems like his kind of scene.
How are four NFL coaches “CRACKING THE BELICHICK CODE”? Judging by this half-assed animation, their trick is to go right ahead and open the safe, because it’s not locked. Just stand in front of it looking grouchy, and the “code”—looks like a combination lock to me, but what do I know—grants you access to the contents therein.
Pardon me, where’s the cracking? Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but if you’re going to entice me with the prospect of cracking, I want to see some cracking.
No, I’m not too riled up about the graphic. And here’s another thing. The wheel on the safe doesn’t spin. Good God, CBS. The folks over at ESPN will animate the tiny numbers falling off the wall in a serial killer’s subterranean museum, but you can’t be bothered to make the wheel on a safe spin?
Even The Price Is Right safe has a wheel that spins. Mind you, this is a plywood safe whose security mechanism is “a stagehand holds the door closed if the contestant gets the price wrong.” Still, it manages to have a wheel that spins. Because that’s what wheels are supposed to do on television. They don’t just sit there enjoying the view of Matt Patricia’s backside.
CBS’ overall grade: Two alligators out of 10.
For its broadcast of what proved to be a thrilling Minnesota-New Orleans game, Fox put even less muscle into graphics than CBS did. This was very much a regular-season-level effort by Fox. We saw the usual no-frills design elements, like the “Aikman’s Angles” box—which made viewers aware of analyst Troy Aikman’s belief that the Saints, who have done many things to win football games, should continue doing those things.
Bah! Keep your computers, with their Photoshops and their Pixars. Fox tells TV stories the old-fashioned way. No 3D simulations were needed for the home audience to feel the tension between Aikman and announcer Joe Buck as Buck looked jealously at Aikman’s plaid jacket. The blazer’s magnificent plaidness put Buck’s subtle check pattern to shame.
Pre-produced segments ruin the thrill of live action, anyway. Better to go with the flow and let the story on the field tell itself. You never know when you might capture a real-time shot of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer being old and yelling at things.
Fox’s overall grade: One alligator out of the two alligators that CBS had. (The other alligator retired. He lost his passion for the game.)
Your Divisional Round QuantumPicks
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. (Overall postseason record: 2-2).
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
Saturday Playoff Football
Minnesota Vikings vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (NBC): If you are among the people who have asked San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne to stop dancing—you might want to sit down. I have disappointing news.
Tennessee Titans vs. BALTIMORE RAVENS (CBS): When you’re preparing for a playoff game, it’s easy to forget laundry day.
Sunday Playoff Football
Houston Texans vs. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (CBS): The Kansas City Chiefs posted a photo gallery of the Chiefs grounds crew preparing the end zones for the Texans game. I’m pleased to report that the painters remembered the “I” in “CHIEFS.”
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. Green Bay Packers (Fox): With snow in the forecast for Wisconsin this weekend, Green Bay has put out a call for “as many as 700 shovelers”—800-person shovel teams need not apply—to earn $12 an hour clearing the stands at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Participation in the snow-clearing effort does not grant fans admission to the ensuing Seahawks-Packers football contest, but if you mostly attend for the bleachers and cold anyway, this is a great way to see the game.
Talk backle to Block & Tackle
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