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
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
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
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
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.