One of the best reasons to be a fan of the NFL is that it is so inherently dynamic: The ground shifts under your feet quicker than anyone can adjust to. In 2011, the Indianapolis Colts won two games, the Minnesota Vikings won three and the Washington Redskins won five. Last year, they all made the playoffs and were among the more electric teams in the game. I know Bills and Browns won't believe me when I say this, but the whole league is designed to foster turnover. If your team is lousy now, just wait. Things can turn around overnight.
This can lead to instability -- when your team implodes, like the Eagles or Lions last season, it can come out of nowhere -- but it also fosters perpetual hope. The Colts were the worst team in the NFL, and then a few blocks fall into place and wham, they're in the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals have one winning record in 23 seasons, but in 2008 they take advantage of a weak division and get hot in January and next thing you know, they're in the Super Bowl. It can happen like that. It usually doesn't. But it could.
Which is why there isn't a sports television program I thoroughly enjoy more every year than NFL Films' "NFL Yearbook" series that runs on ESPN2 throughout August. (You can see all the listings here.) Basically, the show is a half-hour infomercial, produced by the league itself, intended to excite you about the upcoming season, mixing in highlights of the previous season and enticing tidbits about the incoming roster.
Sometimes this is easy. If you are a Baltimore Ravens fan, not only do you want to watch this season's "NFL Yearbook," you probably would love it on a perpetual loop. Because it's the NFL, any disappointments your otherwise successful team suffered are scrubbed away; the 49ers, in the world of "NFL Yearbook," rode Colin Kaepernick to a thrilling postseason run, culminating in a terrific NFC Championship Game win over Atlanta … and then their season was over and nothing else happened. The "NFL Yearbook" world is a land of no hard edges, no sadness, no unpleasantness at all: It's what it must be like to live in a sports information department.
But the real glories of "NFL Yearbook" come not from watching the stories of great teams, but the stories of terrible ones. As an Arizona Cardinals fan, I have decades of experience in this. Basically, here's the formula:
- Introduction. "The [insert year here] Cardinals had their missteps, but it's a team that's looking toward a bright future, with talent, dedication and desire." [Cut to shot of cheering Arizona Cardinals fan and a pan up to the bright Arizona sun.]
- Recap of the one exciting victory during the regular season. This often requires cutting highlights of a 9-7 win over Detroit into something resembling a watchable football game. (One time, you actually got the famous NFL Films shot of a ball being followed dramatically through the air after a punt, which might be the most Arizona Cardinals thing that has ever happened.)
- Five-minute feature story on the team's best player -- for the Cardinals, it's always Larry Fitzgerald -- that's half about his on-field exploits and half about his charitable pursuits. Usually it contains a quote like, "What I do on the field is only part of who I am. What's most important is being part of this community." This are lots of children in this part.
- We wrap up with the look forward, a perfunctory three-second clip from training camp, a shot of the team's first-round draft pick standing with the commissioner and more fans screaming. The closing credits come up with the narrator saying something like "it's a new day in the desert" or "the skies are looking bright."
Inevitably these are given blandly optimistic titles, like, "A New Beginning," "Sky's the Limit," "New Kids in Town" or "Growing a Foundation." (Because it's Arizona, we've had a couple "Rising from the Ashes.") Last year's was "Something To Build On," and man, nothing like "Something To Build On" to make you rush out and buy season tickets.
The Arizona Cardinals one doesn't air until Aug. 30, but I watched the Cleveland Browns' episode on Sunday, and they didn't even bother with many highlights from last season. (The one game they focused on was, amusingly, a 7-6 Week 8 win over San Diego that raise their record to 2-6.) The show mostly featured shots of new coach Rob Chudzinski talking about how thrilled he is to be the coach of the Browns -- he went to school in Toledo and grew up a Browns fan, a fact the show brings up about 4,291 times -- and new owner Jimmy Haslam shaking the hands of fans as his employees tell the camera how inspiring it is to work for him. I wondered why the video felt the need to spend so much time talking about the awesomeness, customer-friendliness of the owner, and then I remembered: Haslam is desperately trying to wrap up (and tamp down) a class action lawsuit against his company Pilot Flying J for bilking customers . In the future, when an owner is prominently featured in one of these "NFL Yearbook" shows, I will assume they were recently accused of doing something illegal. (Or are Jerry Jones.) (Or both.)
But I love these shows all the same. The NFL is a league founded on the notion of not looking too closely behind the curtain, of believing your team can do anything if you just scream loud enough, of pure sensation standing in for reason. These videos are pre-packaged messages telling you that everything is OK, that your team is going to win all its games this year, that the NFL is all powerful and altruistic, that we have always been at war with Eastasia. When you see the perfect film of the ball in the air, the thundering NFL soundtrack, the fans screaming from the sidelines … you almost want to believe them. The sky's the limit. It's a new beginning. We're rising from the ashes.
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