The NFL year has seasons within the season. October is breast cancer awareness season, when the league honors women by offering pink jackets and hats for sale, thereby making people more aware. With one glimpse of the pink highlights on 69-year-old Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ windbreaker, the nation collectively slaps its forehead. “Oh, right—breasts!”
This fuchsia fusillade is the lead-in for “Salute To Service” season. That’s when the NFL stands at attention, hand on heart, tear running down its cheek, as it solemnly reissues all the breast-awareness swag with camouflage instead of pink. You may not be able to extricate our armed forces from an endless morass of Middle East conflict, but you can purchase a Kirk Cousins jersey that makes you somewhat harder to see in the woods. That is almost the same thing.
Week 13 brings the holiday season, when the NFL’s shame hibernates. Fighting breast cancer and supporting troops are noble causes that force the league to conduct itself with some measure of dignity. But the focus of the holidays is to string up tinsel and buy stuff you don’t need. Garish consumerism is the NFL’s native language. With philanthropy out of the mix, the league’s merchandising army can be as tasteless as it wants. The result every Christmas is a wide selection of stupendously unappealing, team-branded holiday tchotchkes. Somebody, somewhere will buy this stuff without irony. Maybe you?
For instance, can Block & Tackle interest you in this Minnesota Vikings Santa Claus figurine? Clad in Vikings purple, Santa finds himself stuck in the chimney, and not in a fun, holly-jolly way. No, this appears to be more of a “fuck my life” moment for old Saint Nick. Perhaps he just watched Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford unleash another 2-yard checkdown pass and felt the last trace of Super Bowl dreams leave his body. In any case, this sculpture is a great way to let holiday visitors know that you’re a Minnesota Vikings fan, with all the cheerless, dead-eyed hypothermia that entails. Skol!
This Jacksonville Jaguars ornament brings a touch of game-day authenticity to your Christmas tree, as it is modeled on actual empty seats in Jacksonville’s EverBank Field. The attention to detail doesn’t end there, as NFL artisans also included a desiccated football that presumably represents the 2-9 Jaguars’ withered prospects for victory. In conclusion, this is an ornament of a chair.
Over the past decade, millions of parents have adopted the “Elf On The Shelf” tradition, placing an elf doll in their homes and telling kids that the be-hatted little shit will “report back” to Santa on their behavior. It’s a great way to teach children about the death of privacy in our pervasive surveillance state. And now, with the help of the NFL, you can stoke your kids’ paranoia and give them a brush with football stardom at the same time. This Tony Romo elf doll bears an uncanny resemblance to a person who doesn’t look like Tony Romo, and the concussed grin of the sidelined Cowboys passer is sure to frighten your offspring from any naughtiness they might have been plotting.
If that’s not scary enough for you, though, consider this Buffalo Bills nutcracker ornament, a vision of yuletide terror that is, according to its NFL Shop page, “ready to hang.” “Even on the holidays, no one will ever question your Buffalo Bills loyalty!” reads the product description. Probably true—although guests are liable to question their humanity as they lock eyes with the mangled, glaring visage of this blown-glass ghoul. Visions of sugarplums will dance in your head, and then the Buffalo Bills nutcracker will suddenly appear, and every dream will end that way for the rest of your life.
For the fan who has everything—literally everything other than this—a Cleveland Browns high-heel ornament is this year’s least essential piece of NFL holiday merchandise. The listing says that the Browns’ shoe ornament is manufactured by The Memory Company, a company that forgot how a human foot is shaped. For whatever reason, many other teams also have high heel ornaments, but flashier squads like the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots offer pumps that are adorned with glittery jewels. The Cleveland version is flat, sparkle-free brown. It seems winless teams don’t rate rhinestones.
Unlike his colleague from Minnesota, the Green Bay Packers’ Santa managed to avoid entrapping himself in his own girth. Here we see the off-duty Claus as he engages in that treasured Christmas tradition, playing checkers on a barrel on your neighbor’s patio. The sculpture sports a plaque that reads, deceptively, “Green Bay Packers.” Someday, when the Santa checkers figurine is the last surviving cultural artifact from the NFL era, people of the future will think that these really were the Green Bay Packers, and this is how pro football was played. Maybe that’s for the best.
Just as San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests were fading from the headlines, a different flag-related controversy flared up again in the NFC West. This one involves the Seattle Seahawks, who lost to the Carolina Panthers in last season’s divisional playoffs. After that game, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton encountered a Seahawks fan who was dangling a “12” flag from the stands, which Newton crumpled up and threw away. This banner is the symbol of the “12th man”—the name Seattle uses (among others) for its disruptive home crowd. As such, Newton’s act was taken as a great insult among people who have the energy to be offended by these things.
This week, with the Carolina-Seattle rematch imminent, reporters asked Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman about the flag kerfuffle. Sherman seemed to address Newton directly in his terse reply: “I guess karma gets you. It doesn’t look like you’re going to be in the playoffs this year.” And so the dagger was in. “I don’t think that has nothing to do with karma that another opposing team’s flag was in my stadium,” Newton later said by way of rebuttal. And so the dagger remained in.
Despite their hard feelings, Sherman and Newton will find common ground as they both participate in the “My Cause My Cleats” event: For one weekend, the NFL is relaxing its uniform rules so that players can promote personal causes with their own custom-designed cleats. More than 500 players will take part.
The idea came about in the wake of an embarrassing misstep by the commissioner’s office last year. In October 2015, league officials docked the pay of Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams after he sported a “Find The Cure” breast cancer message on his eyeblack; teammate William Gay was fined the same week for wearing purple cleats to raise domestic violence awareness. Amid its zealous enforcement of apparel discipline, the NFL suddenly found itself punishing players for their support of causes that the league had quite publicly endorsed. It was a bad look, even by the standards of the NFL.
My Cause My Cleats is a tacit compromise, the rare instance of league executives working to correct their own hypocrisy. And while there are P.R. motives in the mix—Roger Goodell won’t mind when TV announcers spend the whole day discussing NFL athletes’ community activism—it’s not a cynical thing. My Cause My Cleats is an essentially kind-hearted idea that provides an opportunity to look at shoes. There’s not much to complain about in that formulation. I only wish the league would try to solve all of its problems with fancy footwear. The Block & Tackle “never wrong” prediction: Seattle 21, Carolina 17.
This week’s Sunday Night Football matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs had everything: a defense-heavy first half, a second half peppered with taut bursts of offense, and a come-from-behind victory in the final seconds of overtime. The evening started off right when sideline reporter Michele Tafoya showed up in the brilliant yellow ensemble you see above. I imagine Tafoya realized that the backdrop of Broncos orange would provide the perfect festive complement on Thanksgiving weekend. She is a total pro.
“Did anyone see where I left my mouthpiece?” asked Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian. “No idea,” said Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller punctuated a sack by performing his take on the “Hillary shimmy,” hilariously referencing a time when hope still existed. The before times.
Cameras caught a glimpse of Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt, the only NFL executive who can be prank-called simply by telephoning his workplace and asking for him by name.
With the clock running down in overtime and the Chiefs driving toward field goal range, Kansas City placekicker Cairo Santos had to practice amid chaos. At one point, he was nearly run over by a crazed horse and a speeding camera platform in rapid succession.
Yet this harried preparation paid off. After nearly 75 minutes of well-played, hard-fought football, the Chiefs clawed their way into position for one last-gasp shot at victory. Santos’ kick started left and drifted farther left, ricocheting off the left goalpost—and behind the right. One of the season’s most competitive battles ended with a ludicrously rare last-seconds-of-overtime game-winning doink. There’s nothing like witnessing doink history to remind you that pro football still has magic left in it.
The Baltimore Ravens’ Justin Tucker has converted every field goal and extra point he’s attempted so far in the 2016 season, including seven field goals over 50 yards. Tucker’s reliability stands out in a year when the kicking game seems especially erratic. I say “seems” because the statistics aren’t so different from 2015—field goals are being converted at a rate of 84.0 percent this season, compared to 84.5 percent last season. (The extra-point rate shows an even smaller decline.)
One additional miss in every 200 kicks is not enough to be noticeable—or significant. As usual, our collective perception is distorted by spectacle. We’re naturally swayed by a spate of weird kicking events in the 2016 season. An Arizona-Seattle game ended with a tie after both teams screwed up easy field goals in overtime, for instance, and there was also the Week 11 meltdown in which kickers league-wide combined for a record-setting 12 missed extra points. Nonetheless, the overall numbers are pretty steady.
But if the supposedly dire state of NFL kicking is an illusion, that does not make the perfect Justin Tucker any less of a badass, and he knows it. Once he had successfully blasted a 57-yard attempt through the uprights against Cincinnati on Sunday, Tucker raised his outstretched arms in defiant self-congratulation. He invited the fans to shower him with adulation, and so they did. Everyone loves a brassy kicker, as long as he never misses.
Tucker is so addicted to the high of placekicking that he is working to invent new scoring opportunities for himself. During an interview on The Dan Patrick Show this week, Tucker mentioned a rule change that I suspect many Block & Tackle readers may have entertained at one time or another. (I certainly have.) When a kickoff goes through the uprights, Tucker said, it should count as a point. He added that, by his reckoning, he could pull off the feat on “one out of every five” attempts.
Tucker picked up the kickoff-bonus idea from the Ravens’ baby head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh made the suggestion at his Sunday post-game press conference, after he had finished the animal crackers and plain yogurt that were his reward for beating the Bengals. It’s an intriguing yet screwy notion, like most of Harbaugh’s fanciful rule tweaks. In football, there are kicks to yield possession and kicks to earn points—never do the twain meet. Splicing a hail-Mary scoring opportunity into the kickoff could lead to gimmicky, desperate strategies. Even if it is a bad idea, I admittedly would like to see Justin Tucker nail those extra-long one-pointers, or at least drive himself crazy trying. I bet that’s why Harbaugh brought it up, because he’d like to see that, too. The Block & Tackle “never wrong” prediction: Baltimore 17, Miami 16.
Here are Block & Tackle’s “never wrong” final score predictions for the remainder of the Week 13 slate. The predictions must not be doubted. They are truth. They are the only truth. If a game differs from the prediction listed here, it is simply being untruthful—shamefully so.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings (last night, 8:25 p.m., NFL Network/NBC): Dallas 30, Minnesota 21.
Denver Broncos vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Denver 27, Jacksonville 13. Well, well! Jacksonville Jaguars punter Brad Nortman fancies himself quite the pop culture critic! That’s darling. Look, Brad, here’s a little free advice for you. From the outside, it might seem like criticism is just about telling people what you think of stuff. Behind the scenes, though, it’s hard work that involves a lot of kicking footballs as far as possible down a grassy field. Not the type of thing someone like you would understand.
Houston Texans vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Green Bay 21, Houston 14.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Atlanta 20, Kansas City 18. Andy Reid’s neighbor Gerald has beaten him at barrel checkers for three Christmases in a row. They like to barbecue together in the summer.
Detroit Lions vs. New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Detroit 33, New Orleans 29.
Los Angeles Rams vs. New England Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): New England 4, Los Angeles 2.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Chicago Bears (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Chicago 12, San Francisco 9. The existence of the 2016 Chicago Bears has not been confirmed.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Philadelphia 24, Cincinnati 19. About a month ago when the Eagles played the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, Al Michaels called a Darren Sproles running play by exclaiming, “Squirting through the tiniest of holes is Sproles!” That remains the leader in the clubhouse for Football Announcing Sentence Of The Year.
Buffalo Bills vs. Oakland Raiders (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., CBS): Oakland 26, Buffalo 17.
Washington vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): Washington 22, Arizona 20.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): San Diego 28, Tampa Bay 27.
New York Giants vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): Pittsburgh 34, New York 24. Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward never was able to catch the attention of the popcorn guy.
Indianapolis Colts vs. New York Jets (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Indianapolis 17, New York 13. Nobody is more conversant in the arcane jargon of barrel checkers than Monday Night Barrel Checkers analyst Jon Gruden.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2016 season: 177-0
Untruthful games in Week 10: 6
Untruthful games in Week 11 (picks posted on Twitter): 2
Untruthful games last week (ditto): 4
Overall truth-untruth ratio in 2016: 112-65
Indeed he is not.