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NFL Matchup
Possiblhy The Best Football Program That Isn't A Football Game

For twenty years now, John Madden has been winning the hearts of football fans by explaining to Pat Summerall that humans lose most of their body heat through their heads. He proves his point by using his telestrator to draw a couple of preschoolish circles around the heads of one hatless and one hatted spectator in the stadium. Then he draws an angry arrow pointing at the poor sap whose head isn't covered and explains that freezing to death is the worthless sod's just dessert and that he should be wearing a hat like the other guy.

It's hardly the kind of proof that would pass logical muster with the Jesuits, but Madden has learned that it's what people want; for when football analysts use their telestrators to demarcate throwing lanes and to break down blitz packages, the only reaction they are likely to get from their audience is a nationwide yawn.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that Ron Jaworski (dubbed a "tape jockey" by his fellow commentators on ESPN2 because of his propensity for providing genuinely insightful analysis of game film) is fast becoming the most universally lambasted television sports analyst. He is football's equivalent of J.R. Ewing, a man that everybody loves to hate. His unpopularity is so overwhelming that bartenders at sports bars are ashamed when he appears on their ultra-wide screens. Barflies in neighborhood taverns and airport lounges are quick to issue their catcalls of "buffoon," "jerk," and "goofus" when the channel at their favorite dive rests on Jaworski for more than a few seconds.

Now I don't claim to know as much about football as John Madden or Al Michaels or any of the other sacred cows of the football commentating community. But what I do know is that football is great because it is sublimated barbarism. It is a metaphor for war, with much of the violence (and fortunately little of the death) of war. A football game is a neatly packaged little battle in which offensive and defensive coordinators vie for the upper hand by relying on the muscle, decision-making, and grit of their players. It is incredibly emotional, yet incredibly intellectual as well. It offers more than the all-out athleticism of soccer, more than the precisely categorized statistical contest of baseball.

The tendency of fans, however, is to reduce football purely to an emotional level. Fans hate Ron Jaworski for demystifying a play, for explaining that Eddie George's incredible personal discipline is only partly responsible for his success against certain defensive schemes. They hate him for demonstrating, with actual footage to support his interpretation of the play, how Jeff George bungled his reads on a particular pass; they hate finding out that sometimes it's not Randy Moss that beats the cornerback so much as the pattern that he runs.

For some reason, it's acceptable to watch that zutsy weather chippy on Fox with her pre-game "analysis" of the probability of snowfall. It's okay to watch Ditka and Glanville lock horns over unsettled personal scores from decades ago. It's even okay to be sympathetic to Dennis Miller as he stutters his way through opening comments from cue cards that he couldn't be bothered to glance over prior to the game.

But it's not okay to want to learn something about the way the game is played. The only time it is acceptable to watch Jaworski is when he appears on ESPN's NFL Countdown to be mocked by Tom Jackson and Sterling Sharpe. You had better be ready to check your masculinity at the door if you so much as consider owning up to a fondness for NFL Matchup, which is almost entirely comprised of thoughtful breakdowns of the offensive and defensive schemes of the premier teams in the NFL. Having long since lost interest in belaboring my masculinity, however, I will confess that in my opinion, NFL Matchup, tentatively scheduled to air on Fridays at 8 p.m. on ESPN2, is the single most watchable football-related program that isn't a bona fide football game.

The analyses are delivered by the relatively articulate (for a sports commentator) Ron Jaworski and the sputtering (and sometimes incomprehensible) Merrill Hoge, with the assistance of Suzy Kolber, who has the unenviable task of refereeing the obnoxiously premeditated squabbles between Hoge and Jaworski.

As a former quarterback, Jaworski does an excellent job of taking us through the thought processes of the quarterbacks he examines. What are Drew Bledsoe's options when his pocket collapses? How far can Rich Gannon expect to run on this busted play? What weaknesses in opposing secondaries does Daunte Culpepper have to exploit in order to put up such extraordinary numbers? Jaworski's catchphrase is that points come out of the passing game. And every week, he comes to loggerheads with Hoge, who stresses the importance of running backs. But don't worry; things aren't left nastily unresolved. We're always assured in the end that successful offenses are balanced. It's like watching Bambi every week without the mother deer getting killed. I guess it's supposed to do your heart good.

As anyone affiliated with the NFL will be happy to tell you, the incredible athleticism of the average NFL player is such as to make the game completely different from college football. Most players simply can't get away with the kinds of stunts they may have been able to rely upon in college. And most college players know that NCAA ball is almost entirely different from the sort of game they played in high school. (It really changes things when a linebacker can run.)

So it astonishes me that every male who ever played little league football for a year or two in elementary school seems to think that there would be something shameful in admitting to not quite understanding every nuance of strategy in the NFL. Rather, we are supposed to sustain the illusion that males are born with an encyclopedic appreciation for the game. We do this by telling women that they can't understand football (when, in fact, most of us are simply unqualified to explain it).

I'm almost instantaneously skeptical of anyone who says that Jaworski has nothing interesting to teach. As far as I can tell, there are only two types of people that can't learn a deeper appreciation for what quarterbacks do from Jaworski: 1) other NFL quarterbacks; and 2) those little kids that destroy me when we play Tecmo-bowl on Nintendo.