Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
18 Nov 2010
by Mike Tanier
You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain, and you can't turn 40 on the Internet.
Oooh, a Neil Young reference. That's current. What, couldn't you come up with a Cab Calloway quote?
I turn 40 next week, so of course I feel old, impossibly ancient, especially in the young man's game of Internet writing, where pop culture references go stale seconds after their arrival. Are Call of Duty: Black Ops jokes already out of date? Maybe I need something more cutting edge like ... like ...
Can't think of anything? That's because you aren't teaching anymore. You need 120 teenagers a year to prop you up, keep you current, within two area codes of hip, the blood of the innocent keeping you young, like Nosferatu, or Pat Sajak. Dry up and fade away, buddy. Write a book about the Oorang Indians. Write about your new cell phone, the one with a real keyboard. That had them howling a few weeks ago.
This is drifting into self-interview territory, so I need to let my momma and everybody else know that their baby is OK. Turning 40 is no big deal. Heck, it's a reason to celebrate. This week's Walkthrough is a reflection upon 40 years of watching and loving football. Well, 35 years or so, because I didn't pop right out of the womb with a remote control in my hand. They didn't have remote controls in those days. When we finally got one, it had a long wire connected to the cable box, with 12 buttons and a little knob that let you flick down from the cool channels (WPIX-11 in New York) to the strange ones (that scanner that just showed a flat line 24-7; I think it was Brad Childress' EEG).
You get the idea. To put your mind at ease: This Walkthrough is about football, not about me. While there will be a little nostalgia, there will be no wallowing. Promise. If I mention the time I cried when my parents missed a piano recital, you have my permission to go read Word of Muth and never come back. This is about memories we can all share. Like the cable box.
Anyway, I never played piano.
In first grade, I had an NFL lunchbox. It also had an AFC side. Notice that the Buccaneers and Seahawks are in the "wrong" conferences. The Seahawks started out in the NFC West, the Buccaneers in the AFC West, then flip-flopped in 1977 so that as many opponents as possible could see/beat the two new teams.
I never used the Thermos, because we bought milk from school. We sat at long tables in the church basement. I ate peanut butter, ham, or Lebanon bologna on white bread, and an apple or a pear, and stared at the helmets. Jamie Romano had the same lunch box, and we used to quiz each other about the teams. Naming all 28 teams is quite a challenge for a 7-year-old.
How much football did I really watch in the mid-1970s? That's a tricky question, like asking how much television you watched as a kid. All of my friends swear they didn't watch television as children. They say they woke up, went straight to the fields to play baseball or football all day, came home for dinner, then rushed out to play flashlight tag, every night, from age six to 16. They then proceed to recite every episode of Brady Bunch without noting the mutual exclusivity of their memories. Many of the guys who swear their parents only allowed 30 minutes of television per month sat right next to me on Saturday mornings from nine to noon, absorbing 90 minutes of Smurfs before someone kicked us out of the house to have a catch with a Nerf football in a frozen alley.
Our memories of childhood are warped because children lack a real understanding of time and space. I went "trick or treating" with my kids three weeks ago, and we travelled all of six blocks. I was shocked at how little ground we covered, because as a kid I "trick or treated" from noon to midnight and covered four counties. Except that I probably lasted all of two hours and six blocks. As a 7-year-old, two hours and six blocks just felt like the whole day and the whole world.
So I probably didn't watch much football, and certainly didn't understand much of what I watched. Monday Night Football was past my bedtime. The Eagles were often blacked out. I remember when Ron Jaworski was a new quarterback, and I rooted heavily for star fullback Mike Hogan, so I was definitely watching games in 1976 and 1977, and they were having an impact on my young brain.
I rooted for the Eagles and the Oilers. Why the Oilers? Earl Campbell was amazing, the rest of the team was just weird: Ken Burrough wore number 00, for goodness sake, and Bum Phillips looked like he walked off the Hee Haw set. And the Oilers always faced the Steelers. In the Philly area, you are required to hate all good teams, so I rooted against the Steelers. The 1970s Oilers helped build a tolerance for playoff losses I would later need.
Mostly, though, I stared at football cards. I shuffled through them, examined them, ranked the players according to who I thought was best based on how tough they looked in their photos. My first cards came from the 1975 set. Julius Adams was among them, as was Curley Culp. Both were very good players for a long time, but I remember them from their cards, not their on-field accomplishments.
Oh, those cards! Go ahead, look through that Vintage Card Gallery for a few hours. Football Outsiders will still be here when you return. Can you smell the bubble gum? Do you marvel at the airbrushing? Topps didn't have the rights to NFL logos in the 1970s and early 1980s, so they airbrushed helmets and other trademarks, which made for some surreal images, like that Through the Scanner Darkly movie or those weird mutual fund ads where everyone has been colored in pastels.
It was Ralph Bashki's NFL. Often, the players looked like they are wearing high school uniforms, and sometimes the colors didn't match. Topps tried to solve the problem by using lots of sideline photos from preseason games or training camp, because you don't have to airbrush a helmet when the player isn't wearing one. The photography must have looked a little dull at the time. Instead of seeing Charlie Waters laying a hit over the middle, you see him helmetless, with long hair and a John Holmes moustache, staring into the middle distance. But 35 years later, the photos look great, with their crazy haircuts, expressive faces, and trees and other oddities in the background.
My nephew recently showed me a DeSean Jackson card from the Topps Throwback series. Check out the uniform. That is some kind of digital airbrush job, right? And there are trees in the background; probably a Photoshop job, because Eagles camp would have high hills in any background scene. It's a beautiful card, touching all the right notes for a little nostalgic jolt.
Those old airbrushed cards are like memories of watching football as a 7-year-old -- nothing matches up quite right with reality. Everything is dreamy and foggy. There were just big men who crashed into one another on television, and shiny helmets on a lunchbox, colorful and fascinating, cooler than any superhero cartoons or anything else.
My Sunday morning television viewing, circa 1979-81:
7 a.m. or so: The Three Stooges on channel 48. Sometimes, my grandmother would watch the Catholic mass on WPVI Channel 6. But usually, she was OK with the Stooges.
8 a.m.-11 a.m.: Anything that wasn't religious or pro-social. As you may remember, Sunday mornings were once reserved for religious and community service programming, so you couldn't just switch over to SpongeBob (or ESPN, or the Penetration Channel) whenever you felt like it. I couldn't find accurate Philadelphia television listings for Sunday mornings from this era, but a lengthy search of the archives yielded a few shows I truly remember, like Animals! Animals! Animals!, with Hal Barney Miller Linden and the worst theme song ever recorded. Here's another: Big Blue Marble.
You know, I always had a morbid fascination with winsome singer-songwriters, a real love-hate thing. I just discovered where it came from.
I may have done something non-television related with this hour of my Sunday morning, but I doubt it. Maybe I served a mass as an altar boy now and then. My wife reminded me of some of the Philly-region shows that were on during this block. Larry Ferrari, a local broadcast legend, played the organ for 30 straight minutes every Sunday morning from the 1950s until 1997. His last show aired a week after his death. That's a showman. By 1980, even my grandparents couldn't stomach 30 minutes of organ instrumentals. Al Alberts was an old variety show host who invited children onto his Showcase to sing and tap dance. Some of my classmates were on the show. This clip, like the show itself, straddles the cute-sad-creepy borderlands. There's an ad for Ferrari after the poor little girl trapped in the crinoline explosion, plus Sally Starr, so the clip is a must-watch for Philadelphians.
11 a.m.-11:30 a.m.: Penn State Football Highlights. Now here was a show that served no purpose but to feed the football addiction. A forerunner of NFL Rewind, PSFH delivered exactly what it advertised. It was 30 minutes of Penn State highlights from Saturday, hastily edited, with a narrator guiding viewers through the jump cuts in a nasally voice. "We join the Nittany Lions midway through the second quarter at the Panthers 36-yard line after a punt." The program showed whole scoring drives, or the key parts of drives. As I recall, there was also a wraparound segment with a host and some member of the Paterno family offering minimal analysis while falling asleep on a couch.
The PSFH show made me hate Penn State. The jerseys were probably the culprit. Again, we pretend that we had mature tastes as children, that we didn't wolf down McDonalds burgers (or Geno Giants) like they were made with Kobe beef and caviar mayo, that we always valued substance over flash and were too cool for the Smurfs. The Penn State uniforms were boring. Ohio State had glittery silver with pride stickers. Penn State had Matt Millen, then Curt Warner and Todd Blackledge, but Ohio State had Calvin Murray and quarterback Art Schlister, who sadly probably had Penn State and the points.
Here's where memory is really faulty: Penn State was independent back then, and they only played Ohio State once in the early 1980s. I probably saw Syracuse and Pitt in those highlight shows, after watching Ohio State on Saturday afternoons. To summarize: It was a misspent youth in front of a television.
12 p.m.-12:30 p.m.: The Dick Vermeil Show. Vermeil and local sportscaster Big Al Meltzer sat around a table for 30 minutes talking about last week's game and Sunday's big opponent. Meltzer narrated a long Eagles highlight reel from the previous Sunday. Back then, a 90-second montage felt like the whole game, because the NFL was very strict about the use of replays. Vermeil might diagram a play or two. As I recall, there were often guests, usually a star from the previous week's game, John Bunting or Louis Giammona (Vermeil's nephew and the Danny Woodhead of 1980) or someone.
While Vermeil and Big Al were more animated than the Penn State Highlight guys, the show still moved with a speed more fitting Face the Nation than a football pregame show. It was a calm, back-and-forth discussion, taped nearly live, with no jump-cuts to speed the pace. Sadly, I can't find any clips. The next show will make up for that.
12:30 p.m.-1 p.m.: The NFL Today. I am not going to provide a million links. Here is the 1978 theme song, but it is a little distorted. Once you are on YouTube, check out the 1982 and 1983 theme songs and notice how the credits change. The song itself gets a funky wah-wah guitar line, then starts to sound more digital, perhaps because all or part of the live band is replaced by synthesizers. The Fran Tarkenton spiral in the CBS-Eye is replaced by animated football players, then with computer graphics that remind us how fascinating computers were in the days of Tron.
There's a 1977 video in the vault that preserves three minutes of analysis after the song. It starts with Miss America Dorothy Benham wearing Farah Fawcett's hair better than Farah ever did, then cuts to Brent, Irv, and Phillis on the sidelines of a Vikings-Redskins playoff game, where they talk the weather (warm in Minnesota) and about the Miss America Pageant. After Irv discusses the new kicker's cleats, they cut to an almost embalmed Jack Whitaker, who rants for 60 seconds about pride and character.
I could spend 40,000 words unpacking these four minutes, so I will be brief. 1) Benham was gorgeous, and still is. 2) Irv Cross was the Jaworski of the bunch, forced to talk about cleats while Brent Musburger giggles next to two former Miss Americas. 3) Whitaker talks about the Vikings not being sharp, because they clinched early, then says we can throw all of that "out the window." In other words, talking points have not advanced at all in 33 years.
In fact, nothing about the show has advanced much. Pregame shows lasted 30 minutes instead of two hours back then, and a lot of us like to say that those old shows contained more information than our current programs, fattened with 12 talking heads and 50 identical segments. But that four-minute clip features everything that hard-core fans like us don't like about the current shows. There's forced laughter, a plug for another show, pretty girls with no football utility, lots of non-substantive talk about which team is poised, focused, plays with pride, or whatever. Those old shows only had brevity in their favor. No matter how nostalgic you are for the old days, Jimmy The Greek's only purpose in life was to introduce impressionable 10-year-olds to the world of point spreads and slithery Vegas insiders. At least Chris Mortensen provides information and doesn't come across like Creepy Uncle Bookie.
As for NBC, I rarely watched NFL 80 or 81 or 82. Their theme song was funkier, but the Eagles were on CBS, and changing the channel required getting up back then. Plus, NBC had Pete Axthelm, and from an early age I developed skepticism about his tarot card like "trends" approach to handicapping. You know, "the Dolphins are 6-1 at home after a road loss against AFC West opponents," that sort of thing. Later, NBC had a weird computer, a giant prop of a mainframe that acted like Hal and was out-of-date and silly from the day they used it. Couldn't find a link. Help me!
1 p.m.: Doris Day and David Niven star in "Please Don't Eat the Daisies!"
Did I mention that the Eagles were often blacked out? Most of the games from 1980-82 were sellouts, but they also played some late games and Monday Night games in that era. Before and after that, it was up to my bedroom to listen to the game on radio so someone else could watch the Million Dollar Movie.
Super Tecmo Bowl has had a long Internet afterlife. It was a tremendous game but by the time it came out, I was in college.
In the early 1980s, Atari ruled the world, and we were forced to make do with these guys. This screen shot doesn't do the game justice, but the video links I found were suspicious. The players blinked and were barely visible. The Atari 2600 didn't have the memory to display too many characters, so it would draw a character, erase it, and draw the next, in rapid succession. With a total of 12 or 14 characters on the screen, the redraw rates weren't fast enough, so you had all of these blinky blobs who ran in unison. My friends and I played this for hours. One friend had an Intellivision, but for some reason we never played Intellivision football, which had to be better.
I graduated to an Atari 400 with a membrane keyboard. It didn't have a disk drive, but it had cassette tape memory, which we all know is the next best thing. There was a cassette football game for the 400-800 computers, possibly On Field Football, and I made my dad drive to two different malls with my birthday money so I could buy it before Christmas. The game took about 15 minutes to load from cassette tape to computer, after which you could play 7-on-7 football. You called plays with a series of joystick moves. Each receiver knew four routes, the blockers could go up, down, or backward, and since everything was independent, you had the equivalent of about a 500-play playbook once you factored in scrambles and other permutations. The game wasn't very balanced, and we soon learned the West Coast Offense -- snap the ball, wait one second, throw before the receiver breaks, and it's a 10-yard completion. For a break, we would play Defender Football, where you load up Defender, then try to last as long as you could without shooting, dodging and weaving until the aliens took all the humans to the top of the screen, created an army of mutants, then blew up the earth.
In the arcade, Ten-Yard Fight was the crack-heroin-Starbucks fix. The game later came out on Nintendo, and there are emulators out there, but the Nintendo port lacked the vital element of Ten-Yard Fight -- the big arcade joystick.
In Fight, you broke tackles by spinning the joystick rapidly. Tacklers bounced off of you, and once you got a feel for the spin technique, you became Eric Dickerson, John Riggins, and Earl Campbell all at once. You could also toss the ball in the flat, or throw long, or both. One of the game's signature plays was an option pass into the flat, followed by a bomb, followed by some joystick-spinning trucking. Every time you gained 10 yards, the arcade game gave you more time. Once you got good, you could play for an hour with a dollar. The game came out late in the arcade era, when the fad was waning. Therefore, no one noticed that the game was a little too easy, providing 10 minutes or more of football thrills for a quarter.
None of those early games were realistic, of course. But Ten-Yard Fight realistically recreated my football experience, the experience of pickup games at the playground. Pickup was all about simple plays and broken tackles, especially for us husky kids, so Ten-Yard Fight felt real enough. No tactile element in any modern home game recreates that spinning joystick experience. Vibrating controllers don't cut it, and waving a Wii controller around doesn't make me feel like I am trucking anyone. But maybe that's just a sign that I am becoming a fogey.
Street & Smiths came out in late July every year, and I always made sure I had $3 to pick up a copy and read about Why the 49ers Won't Repeat. Back before there were 50 fantasy guides available at Barnes & Noble, Street & Smiths at 7-Eleven was the only game in town.
I can't find my old magazines. I fear I purged everything earlier than 1996 the last time I moved. You know what those magazines consisted of: a few features, then two-page articles about each team, then stats and schedules at the end. Every preview in the world today descends from Street & Smiths, even Football Outsiders Almanac.
Without finding an old Street & Smiths, I can't comment upon the quality of the writing, but I can guess. Those magazines were assembled by stringers and free-lancers, working in late spring. The contributors often weren't credited. I did some of that kind of work early in my career, and you don't delve too deeply into your subject when you are paid in pizza slices and your name is nowhere in the masthead. Even if you wanted to bring your "A+" game, you couldn't, because editors wanted an even-sounding, vanilla publication.
Superficial or not, Street & Smiths was one of the few windows into out-of-town teams we had back then. Remember, there was no Internet, limited cable, and limited resources if you were a teenager and couldn't afford a subscription to The Sporting News. Magazines like Football Digest and College and Pro Football Newsweekly might appear on the newsstand now and then, and rival preview magazines came and went, but Street & Smiths was the symbol of quality for so long that I was still buying them once and a while in the late 1990s. They have since merged with The Sporting News.
There was more to those old magazines than the articles. Every advertisement was a window into another world. Gambling services could advertise in magazines back then, and dozens of them subsidized Street & Smiths. Many of them offered something I found magical back then: data. Buy The Double Deluxe Gold Sheet, or whatever, and you would have home-and-road splits for rushing stats, grass-and-turf splits for receiving stats, and so much more. As a young teen, I imagined what I could do with all of that raw data.
What could I do? No clue. Become a handicapper? Design a game? Write a Baseball Abstract, but for football? It didn't matter. It was easier to get my hands on pornography than that data. Classmates might have a few stolen Playboys to pour through, but nobody stole dad's gambling guide. I tried to convince my parents to buy me a Pro Football Weekly subscription in 1985, but they thought it was too expensive, and parents back then were always convinced that every mail-order operation on earth was a scam. There was no way I could assemble the resources to subscribe to Shifty Vinny's Chrome Sheet, even if I was only coming for the data, not the picks (like reading Playboy for the articles).
By the mid-1980s, many of those gambling sites had 900 numbers. One of them was so enticing: picks, stats, insights, Top Secret Football Knowledge straight from the center of all wisdom (Vegas). By the time I was 14, I had bigger secrets to hide from my parents than an urge to know Tommy Kramer's road passing stats. So I dialed the number on our new push-button phone and waited. It was a tape loop of a guy going from game to game, making picks and talking about the spread. Most of his facts were "trends" analysis: The Oilers were 1-4 coming off a loss to a home underdog. Pete Axthelm nonsense. I hung up.
I never called any other 900 phone line, ever.
This is a bad sign: Almost 4,000 words in, and we are still in 1985 with Tommy Kramer. And I have wasted a few hours on my end watching old NFL Today segments and looking at old football cards.
The nature of nostalgia changes as you get closer to the present. The world itself becomes more like our world, and your perspective becomes more like your current adult perspective. That creates its own distortions. When you think back to yourself as a 10-year-old, you start to recreate that world, because you have to. You lived with different people, probably in a different place, at a time when your resources were fewer and the technology was different. When you think back on 2005, you make the mistake of thinking that everything was exactly the same as it is now. I have to remember, for example, that I only had one child, had never heard of Facebook or Twitter, and wrote for a site that looked like this.
That's what happens to your memories of the late 1980s and 1990s , if you are my age. By 1990, I have cable in my dorm room, giving Comcast two months of cash up front and then coasting for two free months until they shut me off. Chris Berman is on the pre-game show, ESPN Primetime comes on after the late games, and there are Sunday Night games. Soon, we are watching games in bars, eventually legally, and there are satellite packages so we can watch the Seahawks whenever we want. We play Madden and fantasy football, subscribe to the magazines we want, go to games without waiting for dad to drive, tailgate until we're pickled.
It's all the same. Then you remember how amazing it was when you first went to the bar with 80 televisions showing every game, how you couldn't figure out where to look. You remember when Madden only had player's numbers, not names, and when a window appeared so you could track your receivers. You remember that Primetime was must-see television, how everyone watched and Berman's routine felt funny and cool, and you realize that in 20 years, the concept of an hour-long highlight show (in low def!) will be as quaint as Jimmy the Greek. You called in your fantasy lineup by phone back then, and you tracked your team in the USA Today. It was really very different.
I'll wrap with a story that shows just how quickly time flies. I live-blogged my first draft in 2002, working for a company similar to Rotoworld that produced a lot of capsule updates, player news, and the like. We didn't use the term "Live Blog," because I don't think the term existed. In fact, when I started working for that company back in 2000, my editor had to explain the concept to the writers in a series of e-mails. "You can't just paraphrase the stories from the Associated Press. We have a news feed. Your job is to find the most interesting stories and spin them. Add analysis, or maybe jokes." In other words: blog. But back then, blogging wasn't popular, or didn't exist, and some of my fellow writers didn't understand what to do, which meant more work for me.
Anyway, they decided to do pick-by-pick analysis, and that meant I sat at home, waited for the announcements on television, then submited a pre-written scouting report and a quickly written "spin" on the move, just as I do now. Here's the big difference: I did the whole thing with a dial-up modem.
Yes, back then I was still on AOL. There were two dial-up numbers, and if they were busy, you were stuck. You can also imagine the speed at which pages loaded, which wasn't as big a deal back then, because there wasn't quite as much data imbedded in every page. Still, it was a headache and a half to load ESPN.com at 64K speeds.
I wasn't being technologically backward. Cable Internet existed, but for some reason they never wired my neighborhood. There were other options, but I was content to putter along at 64K until Mount Ephraim got out of the Stone Age. But I was backward in one other respect: We only had one phone line, so I had to tie up our home telephone line for 11 hours to do the blog. Cell phone? Not me.
So I went full speed ahead, sending updates to an editor through an AOL Instant Messenger window, until the phone connection started flickering in and out. Every time I lost the connection, I had to redial and hope not to hear a busy signal. Sure enough, during one of the disconnections, a friend called. "Who do you think the Eagles take? I hope T.J. Duckett is still there!" Getting him off the line was easy. Mom was tougher, because moms talk slowly and plow right into whatever is on their minds. "Mom ... mom ... oh, I am sorry to hear Aunt Matilda is sick ... listen mom, I don't want to cut you off but ..." Once I shooed my mother, I redialed AOL. Wheeeeeeee-arrrrrrrrrrr, gzzzzzzzh, gzzzzzzzzh, gzzzzzzzh. Let's see, I missed Albert Haynesworth and Willie Green.
That draft lasted until nearly midnight, the longest in history. I went out for 10 beers afterward, and when I came home, I woke up every 15 minutes. I kept imagining I heard the little ba-ba-bump noise ESPN used to announce picks, and that I had to scramble to assemble a report on someone named Anton Palepoi.
Want to feel old? Read through the 2002 draft. Jeremy Shockey. Antwaan Randle El. Tank Williams. LeCharles Bentley. Whole careers have risen and fallen. Try to remember a world when David Carr was filled with promise, and you dialed into AOL to see if the brand new Houston Texans planned to draft him. Now, remember how everything else was back then, when Rich Gannon was league MVP. For me, that means remembering a time with no children, no Football Outsiders, no weekly bylines. It's almost as hard as remembering the lunch box or The Dick Vermeil Show. I don't know what I did with my free time before I had kids, though I have a feeling I spent much of it waiting for pages to load with my 64K modem.
Thank heavens for this Internet contraption. It gives us images of old football cards and videos of old television shows. It also gave me the chance to write. Before the Internet, there was no career path that would take me from a math classroom to your computer screen. Looking back is fun, but cherishing what is special about the present is even more fun. I get to watch football games and write about them for money. It is exciting, fun, and rewarding. I am lucky.
Fandom is such a huge part of our life that it should produce this kind of nostalgia. Football memories should be family memories, and happy ones. We lose sight of this too often. The football fan experience shouldn't be five months of gritted teeth and hope-against-hope for a championship. It should be lazy Sundays, fun and games, football cards and tailgate parties. Twenty years will pass, and you will look back on watching games and reading Football Outsiders. The experience should be rewarding, or at least a pleasant at-work diversion.
Thanks for time travelling with me. Walkthrough disappears for Thanksgiving but returns in December, fully loaded with diagrams and stats. We will all be a little older and wiser then.
130 comments, Last at 10 Dec 2011, 9:48pm by Darren