By Jeb Lund
The NFL's first weekend is probably my favorite tradition of the year, for all the wrong reasons. I love football, and I'm excited for a new season. But everything else is just so bewilderingly excessive that I can't help but celebrate it.
You know what I'm talking about: One network's NFL 2013 kickoff show will feature Taylor Swift and someone like Switchfoot doing a pre-game three-song duet list, based on someone's impression that, when you think "NFL" you think of Taylor Swift and someone like Switchfoot. Per the terms of their Super Bowl bet, the town elders of Baltimore will devour a virgin from San Francisco. Meanwhile, some ex-player with a 24-inch neck and a tie knot bigger than an infant's head will half-ass a Costas-esque monologue about league history and pageantry inside something that looks like a remake of the Roman Colosseum while fireworks erupt in an orgy of scarlet blow-up joy. F-16s will fly over, releasing chemtrails of Flouridated Commerce Happiness. It's fun because the spectacle is so inimitably "NFL" that it completely laps shame and winds up somewhere at enjoyment in spite of itself.
The pregame spectacle is unnecessary of course. We don't learn anything, and the commentators don't try to teach. We really could go another day without blowing anything else up. And Switchfoot, or whoever it is? (Wait, it's Keith Urban? Seriously?) It's hard not to walk away with the impression that this was designed for idiots by an idiot. Which is fine by me, because I am one. NFL football feels like the most idiot-friendly sport in the world, because at any given moment, it's thoroughly possible to not know why anything is happening.
Most every other sport can be broken down to far simpler elements. One golf lesson is pretty much all you need to understand the fundamental struggles of golf. It's a self-evident conflict. There is a man, and he's trying to use bent sticks to wallop an outer-space testicle into something shaped like nature's own soda can. Because that man is crazy. Traditionally, this man would have worn some sort of fanciful clothing to indicate that he was insane.
Tennis contains many of the same properties as golf, but with someone else added to make things difficult. The essential struggle of tennis is hitting the ball where you want it to go and where the other person does not. A lot of tennis analysis boils down to, "He made more unforced errors than the other guy," which is a more decorous way of saying, "He hit the ball ungood."
Meanwhile, though baseball has all the pastoral poetics of outfielder positioning, shifts and some running strategy, we understand that it is a basic transaction between two people: you have the stick, and I am going to try to make the ball miss the stick, and basically this comes down to how well I can make the ball go where I want it to.
Hockey and basketball are more complex, sublimely fluid games, but it's not terribly difficult to spend half a season and feel like you know everything that's going on. You can witness most of the on-ice or on-court action and get the sense of how relatively few moving parts create a whole.
The NFL, on the other hand, is 22 moving parts colliding at insane speeds with such bizarre complexity that piecing it together feels a lot like asking a toddler to reconstruct a watch. There certainly are commentators and journalists who obsessively watch All-22 footage and analytically break down tape. Take your Mayocks, your Collinsworths or great writers like SI's Dr. Z., whose series of debilitating strokes reduced the collective IQ of NFL writing by probably double digits. They aren't legion, however, and during any given game you're apt to hear any fourth-quarter pass defense described as "prevent" regardless of the number of DBs, or someone referring to "Bill Belichick's 3-4 scheme" while personnel are lined up in a 4-3 on that down.
With everyone else, it's easy to get the sense that no one really knows what he's doing, that we're all kind of faking it to varying degrees while professional courtesy keeps peers from pointing that out. Peter King isolates a couple of plays per game to illustrate a point, but one can assume from reading them that he could have arbitrarily picked two other plays to argue the opposite point with just as much credibility. Heck, his column has a section called, "10 Things I Think I Think."
You can try doing this with virtually any team or game, in general terms as much as in specifics. Running to set up the pass is just as strategically valid as claiming that teams must pass to set up the run. Or you can claim that in a passing league with smarter defenses, offenses need to pass more and get more fast-paced to expose defensive mismatches. On the other hand, you can cite that same kind of offense -- hello, Chip Kelly -- as a time-of-possession liability that will gas your own defense and allow teams to run up more points, nullifying the advantage of your frenetic laser-like pass attack.
Probably all of us have baldly flip-flopped on this kind of analysis out of an unsuppressed but natural streak of homerism. I've made tortured arguments to defend the Buccaneers and castigate football that's "wrong for them," then totally rewritten my standards the next year to fit the circumstances. I'm not doing this out of any especial devotion to mendacity; I just want to convince myself that this year will suck less. "Greg Schiano was a college coach? Sure, um, yeah, I think his background will give him an advantage in motivating players and getting more out of these terrible draft picks." What the hell am I thinking? I laughed at people who said this about Steve Spurrier in Washington. And Greg Schiano is a meathead.
Any one man can beat another man on any given play, which is why it takes spending a while with All-22 footage to understand how 11 separate conflicts added up to breakdown or success. (It looks like Collinsworth does this on the fly, but he works with Football Night in America's producers to focus on matchups and players he suspects will do certain things; then they run footage that confirms or disconfirms a preexisting theory.) I suspect this is why guys like Tony Siragusa -- who probably do know better -- distill their tape breakdown to arguments that sound like, "I think this team hits harder than this other team, and if the other team wants to win the battles, it has to hit harder, because hitting hard is the winningest way to hit." You can know that a play was broken up because JJ Watt got past Sebastian Vollmer and sat Brady's ass down on the turf, but you rarely know exactly why. Maybe JJ Watt just hit him harder.
All of this is very liberating as a fan. I'm an idiot! Who knows why anything happens? Every NFL play is a clusterf--- of 22 different violent and totally mad decisions! Wheeeeee! Add potential bizarre or unfortunate circumstances can upend an entire season, like an injury to Aaron Rodgers or Colin Kaepernick, and we have no idea what will happen in a macro or micro sense. Throw in players like Chris Johnson in 2009 -- who suddenly become insanely great for what ostensibly looks like they just felt like it -- and NFL Week 1 is a masterpiece of not knowing why anything is happening.
It's great. It's perfect. It's why I'm going to turn my brain off and love every second of Sunday. Call it Socratic vegetation for a mind already denuded with beer. I know that I know nothing. I'm an idiot. Wheeeeee!
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