By Sarah D. Bunting
It's not easy to make a blowout compelling, but Fox's Super Bowl 48 coverage still should have done better. On the plus side, at least it wasn't Joe Buck's fault.
Believe me, if it were Joe Buck's fault that the telecast of Super Bowl 48 felt sluggish, like it was happening underwater, I'd be the first to say so. I've disliked his baseball commentary for years, because he evidently considered it an annoying obligation and could barely conceal his distaste for his longtime partner Tim McCarver. His work on football telecasts is far better -- more engaged, more helpful for the casual fan, less beleaguered -- but it's taking some time for me to get out of the "shut up, Joe Buck" habit. That said, he's not to blame.
The studio team isn't to blame, either. Terry Bradshaw's father passed away late last week, and he left the game-day broadcast to be with his family. Michael Strahan's day job is on Live with Kelly and Michael, and he did a creditable job trying to fill the void, but the rest of the analysts' desk seemed a little rattled by Terry's absence. That wasn't the problem either.
The problem was the lopsided score, for two reasons, and everyone knows the first: It's hard to make a blowout entertaining, because it doesn't give you much to say that isn't obvious. The Seahawks got on the board with a quickness thanks to a safety -- and I mean a quickness; half my viewing party hadn't picked their positions on the sectional yet -- and something about that play set the tone. Sure, it's two measly points and a lot of football left to play, but it just seemed to take the Broncos out of the game psychologically in some decisive way. That Manning could or would preside over a comeback never quite felt like a possibility, and it's a hell of a lot of airtime to fill when the outcome isn't in any apparent doubt.
But a blowout isn't just a dull sit for anyone who isn't rooting for the blower-outer; a blowout isn't part of the plan. It's sort of boring on a football basis, it's a bad outcome for the network (shorter game, fewer viewers sticking around for postgame scripted shows, et cetera), and for Super Bowl XLVIII specifically, it's not the narrative anyone expected. Actually, little of the night followed the script. The dire weather the locals have gritted our teeth through for a fortnight cleared off, and kickoff saw springlike temps in the upper 40s. (MetLife Stadium overcompensated to a comical degree for the threatened polar vortex, according to a flurry of pre-game tweets reporting that the heat lamps in the press box had turned the place into a sweat lodge -- but as far as I know, that story didn't make the telecast.) The weeks spent arguing about Richard Sherman, sportsmanship and coded language about race didn't see a payoff on the field, of course; Sherman did his job without incident until leaving the game in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury.
The myriad repetitions of the phrase "Peyton's legacy" from before kickoff? The discussion of which would prevail in this sure-to-be-close contest, Denver's historic offense or Seattle's legendary D? Not much use for those either, and Fox's on-mic staff hadn't prepped very well for other versions of the game. After the halftime show, Curt Menafee and Strahan spent -- well, it wasn't that long, and yet it was far too long analyzing whether halftime headliner Bruno Mars picked up any new fans with his performance, while Jimmy Johnson looked as though he'd eaten a bug. Denver put up a goose egg in the first half and looked pretty bad doing it (the receivers' Wile E. Coyote-looking routes weren't helping). Don't you want to talk about why that is, or explain how Seattle is crowding him in the pocket so successfully? Every time Manning dropped back to pass, it looked like he'd wandered into a rave. Why are we talking about Flea?
My guess: They know what Flea is. They have a couple sound bites ready to go for that. They didn't have anything prepared for Seattle shredding the "historic offense." The booth had the same problem, or Troy Aikman did, in that Aikman had a story, The Legend of Peyton Manning, and he was trying heroically to stick to it. Manning's ugly game wouldn't affect his status as an all-time-great QB... Manning was "effective"... Aikman did admit that he hadn't expected the Seattle defense to hamstring Denver to this degree, and I guess that's refreshing, but shouldn't you prepare even a little for that eventuality? Or better yet, as a former QB yourself, analyze why it's happening and talk about how Manning might adjust -- which is also what your coverage should do?
I've heard worse out of an NFL booth -- during last year's blackout, to name but one example. I will also say in Fox's favor that the level of "in order to win football games in the National Football League, you've got to move the football down the field!" filler inanity was comparatively low, especially for a general-interest game like this one. (Why don't they just say "the ball"? It's pretty clearly not tennis.) It's not the directors' or the on-camera talent's fault that the commercials seemed limp in 2014. But it wasn't completely unforeseeable that the Seahawks might shut Manning down; it happens. An announcer can be stunned by a meltdown and still do his job around it -- I'm thinking of the New York Mets booth's excellent, if flabbergasted, work in the face of Tom Glavine's hideous final start in Queens in 2007 -- and the Super Bowl is one of maybe three events that we all experience together as a country. If we're all experiencing an epic fail, tell us why. React to what's happening.
And stop cutting away to Eli looking like he's marinating in his own flatulence. It's cruel.
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Sarah D. Bunting is the East Coast Editor at Previously.TV. She has written for New York, Glamour, MSNBC.com, NPR.org and Yahoo!, and despairs of the Mets at TomatoNation.com.