The plan was coming together for the Teti family last weekend. “You take the kids to gymnastics class in the morning,” suggested my wife, “and then I’ll find something for us to do while you’re watching the football games.” I replied, “There are no games this Sunday,” and you must understand, I meant this to sound like good news. In my imagination, I had such a chipper spirit: “Listen up, family! As a treat for you, I will be a functional caregiver this Sunday afternoon. Isn’t that wonderful? Aren’t I wonderful?” Bouquets would land at my feet. The ghost of Bert Parks would sing an ode to me, America’s Ideal Of Manhood, as I waved and saluted the crowd.
This is what I had in mind. But as it turned out, when it actually came to saying, “There are no games this Sunday,” my voice possessed a curious lack of sparkle! Instead, as I heard the words spoken out loud, I perceived the hollow timbre of a fan staring into the abyss of the offseason. It is safe to assume my wife continued the conversation without me. My attention was now entirely occupied—sucked into—the void. The post-football unknown. “How did this happen?” I wondered in panic. I recalled with rue the previous five months of NFL football that led to this moment. So that was it. Maybe if we hadn’t played so many football games, the season wouldn’t be over already.
As usual, it is the football games’ fault.
Football arrives in the fall, promising to ease our transition into winter with its warm, enchanting stew of mayhem and athleticism. But then, in early February—when the cold is most biting, and the view out the window is a vista of salt-stained browns and grays—the sport cruelly departs. We are left to complete the march to springtime on our own. “What should I do in the meantime?” I asked football in my despair. And football replied, “You could get down on the floor with your beautiful little son, who you love more than life itself, and play trains with him, because he would cherish that.” So, thanks for nothing, football.
The pre-Super Bowl fortnight marks the beginning of the perennial detox session for a nation of football fans. Technically, there is one more game yet to be played. But the Super Bowl is an entity unto itself—it’s not “football,” the routine, the ritual, as we come to understand it over a 20-week stretch. That sort of football is a habit-forming substance. Now our weaning begins, or more accurately has already begun, with Sunday’s Pro Bowl, the methadone of sporting events.
It comes as some consolation that even the players who will participate in the Super Bowl can feel aimless at this time of year. Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman was followed by a camera crew for “Opening Night” of Super Bowl LIV, an Olympics-esque welcome ceremony that has no apparent reason to exist. Fittingly, Hardman doesn’t know quite what to do with himself. He pokes a teammate at a hotel buffet. He puts a cold bottle of Gatorade on someone’s neck. Hardman encounters Chiefs defensive back Kendall Fuller, who’s filming the room with a video camera. “You said I need to be more photogenic,” Fuller offers. Hardman tries to explain that the word “photogenic” only applies when you are the one being photographed. Fuller does not care. The reality is he’s holding a camera because he, like Hardman, just needed something to do.
San Francisco 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon took a more proactive approach to Opening Night by playing sports reporter for the evening. “They done messed up and gave your boy the mic,” McKinnon boasts in his reedy voice, suggesting that he is about to blow up the staid traditions of NFL journalism. McKinnon has charm to spare, but he still runs up against the fundamental difficulty of Super Bowl coverage: At this point in the season, there’s not much left to say. After gamely feigning interest in a series of bland Q&A exchanges with his teammates, McKinnon encounters a peculiar man holding a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots game. “It’s the 30th anniversary of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots,” this fellow says, falsely. McKinnon hands off his microphone and plays a round. Anything to pass the time.
The Super Bowl is peculiar in that it ends. By which I mean, it is The End. Since the season began in September, 266 games of NFL football have been played, and each one of them has ended with an implicit “To Be Continued.” As soon as they are past, they are prologue. Except this game. Only after this, the 267th contest, is the story of the 2019 NFL season deemed sufficient.
The “last game”-ness of the Super Bowl is a self-evident distinction but one that I feel deeply nonetheless. Around the end of the third quarter, my gut starts to churn with the nervous energy of the great culmination taking place. It’s not just me that feels it. You can hear it in the sound of the crowd, as the desultory murmur of the first half gives way to a focused roar, a long crescendo peppered with shrieks of ecstasy and howls of despair. You can see it in the eyes of the players on the sideline, nervously shifting their gaze between the scoreboard and the field as they write and rewrite a happy ending in their minds.
The shared anticipation of the Super Bowl is enhanced by the fact that we all have to share in it. The End is known to no one until it is known to everyone. By contrast, the finale for a scripted show like Game Of Thrones is an event because the viewing public learns a big secret that the creators have closely held. In a Super Bowl, nobody knows the secret, not even the coaches and players who create the story. All parties are subject to the same egalitarian suspense, an electric sensation that builds as long as the game remains competitive. We are together in not knowing what will come, which is a universal human condition in the world at large, too. Remember, though, the Super Bowl ends. The world? To be continued.
The NFL’s annual all-star game, the Pro Bowl, took place on Sunday. The NFC emerged victorious over their rival conference, the AFC, or the opposite of that is true, because I didn’t see it and I can’t summon the will to look it up. I’ve tried to sit through the Pro Bowl before, but watching the league’s most talented athletes half-ass their way through a meaningless exhibition game is even bleaker than no football at all.
That said, the Pro Bowl is not all bad, for it is preceded by the Pro Bowl Skills Showdown, an event that imagines what would happen if the NFL had a love child with the 1990s Nickelodeon game show Wild & Crazy Kids. In the Skills Showdown, Pro Bowl athletes compete in a series of increasingly silly backyard games, which includes a precision-pass shooting gallery for quarterbacks, a boot camp-style obstacle course, and the grand finale: dodgeball.
“It’s always interesting, the strategy here,” intoned ESPN analyst Booger McFarland during the “Thread The Needle” contest—a game in which quarterbacks try to throw a ball through holes in a plywood wall. McFarland’s autopilot commentary could not have been less correct. Matters of strategy are the least interesting consideration at the Skills Showdown. Instead, the beauty of the event is that, unlike the Pro Bowl proper, the Skills Showdown does not pretend to be anything more than it is—which is nothing. The mini-games are goofy, the officiating is dodgy, and it’s all fine, because there are essentially no stakes. Everyone, with the notable exception of McFarland and his doggedly earnest broadcast partner Joe Tessitore, taps in to the prevailing spirit of cheerful apathy.
If you somehow failed to tune in for this year’s Skills Showdown, here’s a recap of all the events.
In Precision Passing, quarterbacks take turns throwing footballs at a variety of large circles. The unspoken presumption here is that the circles had it coming—maybe they said something rude to Roger Goodell in the men’s room, I don’t know. All I’m saying is, if I’m a trapezoid at the Precision Passing contest, I’m feeling pretty safe. The whole event is set up so powerful quarterbacks can exact justice on these goddamn circles. But as the competition began, Baltimore Ravens QB and “presumptive league MVP” Lamar Jackson took a stand. He left the circles alone. Even after 30 of Jackson’s allotted 60 seconds had elapsed, not a single circle had been molested by Jackson’s many footballs. Jackson simply has a fondness for geometric forms whose surface area can be calculated using pi—circles, spheres, you name it. Cylinders.
Then Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings took over, and he was merciless. I cannot believe how hard this man threw footballs, all so he could score points in a cut-rate American Gladiators knockoff that would be viewed by only the most pathetic football fans. (Note: I watched this broadcast in its entirety, more than once.) You could actually hear Cousins grunting and snorting as he unleashed a season’s worth of pent-up frustration with every throw. At one point, he even shouted “GOLLY!” as if he were spitting the word—such was his family-friendly intensity.
Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams was willing to take part in this cockamamie catching contest as long as he did not have to remove his bucket hat.
The Gridiron Gauntlet is an obstacle-course relay race. This year, the second leg of the race proved crucial, as the competitors faced a fumble drill in which they had to grab four loose balls in quick succession. Denver linebacker Von Miller was ridiculously good at this. It is hard enough to gracefully field one bouncing football, let alone four. Miller’s NFC counterpart, Tampa Bay linebacker Shaq Barrett, demonstrated how the puckish pigskin can make a fool of a world-class athlete. I rewound this segment a few times, alternately amused by Miller’s vacuum cleaner routine and Barrett’s tribute to Bill Buckner. The league’s owners and executives will meet soon to debate rule changes for the 2020 season, and I would like to nominate “four footballs are used on every play” for consideration.
The aforementioned Thread The Needle event provided us with this look at Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, an image that I believe sums up the coherence and majesty of Pro Bowl Week.
On second thought, I was too hard on Booger—strategy may have a role to play in the Skills Showdown after all. The 2020 edition of “Epic Pro Bowl Dodgeball” (it’s plain normal dodgeball) ended with a startling stroke of tactical genius by Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry. With his AFC side outnumbered 4-to-2, Landry stopped trying to hit his opponents, and he rolled his balls over to the opposite side—essentially feeding them ammunition. What fresh madness was this?
Landry appeared to decide that, since he is one of the most highly skilled ball-catchers on the planet, and a ball-thrower of no particular note, he ought to seek victory by playing to his strengths. So he drifted toward the back line and played defense. The NFC players took the bait, unloading their best volleys at Landry, who caught two balls in quick succession to retire a pair of opponents and even the game. A minute later, Landry was the last man standing, and the AFC’s victory at the Pro Bowl Skills Showdown was secured. We can only hope the Super Bowl will offer such captivating twists, and that it will feature such a great quantity of bright, round, yellow balls. We can only hope those two things.
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. (Last week: 2-0. Overall 2019 postseason record: 6-4).
See, all that stuff I said above about nobody knowing the outcome of Sunday’s game—that pertains only to mere mortals. The QuantumPick Apparatus knows. It knows better than reality itself, in fact. And it has divined that the victor of this Sunday’s game is THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS. So now you know, unless you don’t.
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