Adaptation, or Surviving Super Bowl Hype

by Mike and Ekim Tanier

Sunday, January 23rd, 6:30 PM: My ecstasy about the Eagles NFC Championship victory fades to a warm, euphoric glow. I'm still thrilled, but reality seeps back into my consciousness. My son has to be bathed. There's another game to watch. And I'm a freelance writer with responsibilities.

I flip on the Patriots-Steelers game and dash off a quick e-mail to Aaron at Football Outsiders. He's invited me to write for the site regularly, and I want to make a positive impression. I promise him top quality Super Bowl analysis from the perspective of a Philly native and an Eagles fan.

Aaron responds quickly; he's online while watching his Patriots chew up the Steelers. "I'm sure it will be great," he tells me. "You should be a great resource for the site. You'll be our man in Philly."

Confident that I'll be able to generate some great Super Bowl articles, and certain that the Patriots have the game in the bag, I grab the digital cable clicker and watch the Eagles victory again.

Sunday, January 23rd, 10:00 PM: I've re-watched the game. I've watched the commentary on the local sports channel. Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell gave his analysis. Bill Bergey of the 1980 Eagles gave his. Vaughn Hebron. Ray Didinger. Fred Barnett. Talking heads come out of the woodwork. I switch off the television to brainstorm about Super Bowl articles.

Brainstorm: analysis of free agents: Corey Dillon vs. Terrell Owens. Too obvious. Brainstorm: the myths surrounding the team, like the Eagles supposedly weak run defense and the underrated backup cornerbacks for the Patriots. Decent, but it doesn't exactly sing. Brainstorm: looking back at Andy Reid's controversial first season in 1999, when he started Doug Pedersen over Donovan McNabb. Maybe ... a real legit maybe.

"I don't see what the problem is," my twin brother Ekim says as I scribble down ideas. Ekim has been a constant source of grief since his days as a placenta hog. "There's plenty to write about. I have an idea: Donovan McNabb, a better quarterback than Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. That will really get people talking." Ekin always believed that he was a better writer than me; he just never bothered writing anything.

"That's a horrible idea," I reply. "It's not really true. It's totally argumentative. It doesn't really add insight about the Super Bowl or football in general. It's the kind of thing a talk radio host says to get people screaming on the phone for four hours."

Ekim is undaunted; he thinks his idea is great and starts to jot down notes. I start to flesh out my Andy Reid article. I'll need to go to the Philadelphia Daily News archives, but I could write something special.

Monday, January 24th, 7:30 AM: The WIP morning show guys are amped. They are interviewing Reid and Westbrook. The local modern rock station is on the bandwagon, too. There's a foot of snow on the ground, but the only thing that can trump a snowstorm in the Philly media is an Eagles Super Bowl appearance.

I arrive at school early. Friday's Daily News is sitting unread, right where I left it. I leaf through it before throwing it away. There's a story about Andy Reid's controversial first season in 1999, when he started Doug Petersen over Donovan McNabb. The story is well researched and insightful. I wouldn't change a friggin' word.

I throw out the paper.

No one wants to learn math today, and I don't want to teach it. Everyone is talking football. Girls are talking football. Lunch ladies are talking football. Everyone wants to talk football with me, the freelance NFL writer. "How about that hit Dawkins put on Crumpler," about fifty people say. "Yeah, that really set a tone," I reply fifty times. It's important to have a cliche at the ready: "setting a tone" is a great fallback.

Monday, January 23rd, 7:00 PM: Freddie Mitchell, he of the wrestling belt and the faux Fro-Hawk hairstyle, is on 92.5 FM. Country 92.5 FM. He has a regular show, along with David Akers and this week's guest, Sam Rayburn. FredEx assures listeners that Rayburn is "a pickup truck kind of guy." There are probably lots of pickup truck guys listening. Mitchell, I would suppose, is not a pickup truck kind of guy.

I am brainstorming again, at the drawing board. Brainstorm: the Eagles' eight-man defensive line rotation, and the advantages it gives Jimmy Johnson. I still had the tape of the game, and I could analyze who was in what position for every snap. Now, that's Outsiders-style coverage. But is it relevant? Defending Brady is nothing like defending Michael Vick; analyzing line usage would just be an exercise in data mining if it had no bearing on the Super Bowl. If I had film of 10 games, and 35 hours of free time to dissect it, I might have something.

Ekim barges in. "I have notes on my 'McNabb is better than Brady and Manning' article. I want to make a big point about McNabb's ability to scramble. He's far superior to Brady and Manning as a runner."

I squeeze the bridge of my nose. "Ekim, that's obvious analysis. And it doesn't lead anywhere. The Falcons and Vikings had scrambling quarterbacks, and look where it got them. How many scrambling quarterbacks won the Super Bowl? Look at Randall Cunningham, for goodness sake. No one wants to read what they already know."

"You've never been a good judge of ideas, Mike," he replies. "Plus, you are jealous, ever since you traded me your rights as firstborn for a bowl of lentil soup."

Ekim leaves, eventually. I e-mail a friend on the Philadelphia Inquirer staff, asking him to keep his ear to the ground for stories I can snap up. "I'm not proud," I write. "I'll take crumbs."

Monday, January 24th, 9:30 PM: "It's Your Call" is a low-budget regional cable talk show. It's one of those schizophrenic shows that covers school violence on Monday, spring fashions on Tuesday, and both international terrorism and Golden Globe nominations on Wednesday, all without changing its tone. Tonight's topic is "Super Bowl Mania!!!" Three exclamation points mean three times the journalistic integrity!!!

Host Lynn Doyle is a fugitive from The View who approaches every story with the grating pluck of some dinner theater Momma Rose. Tonight, she's wearing a diamond snowflake broche the size of Evander Holyfield's fist, a piece of costume jewelry that looks like a Klingon military insignia. Her guests include Boston-area journalist Ed Berliner, who has a voice like Don Pardo, and Philly sports talk has-been Lou Tilley, whose moustache recalls Boogie Nights.

"It will take a minor miracle to beat the Patriots," Berliner intones. Two Super Bowls and one World Series was all it took to turn Boston commentators into strutting New Yorkers. Patriots Hall-of-Famer John Hannah calls in, and Doyle announces that she's "ever so tickled to have him on." Hannah believes that the Patriots will win because they know how to prepare. I wonder how Hannah's 1985 Patriots prepared for the Bears. By making sure their insurance was up to date, I suspect.

I turn off the yammering talk show. I assemble my Super Bowl preview for Sports Forecaster, the one that'll run in about 15 newspapers. The analysis is straightforward, not the heavy tactical stuff I'd rather write for FO. I pick the Eagles by three. Ich bin nein Berliner. Then I realize that I still have the Eagles game recorded. I watch it again, taking note of key plays. That's what Football Outsiders needs, an analysis of key plays that will help explain the Eagles. I start to flesh out some ideas.

Tuesday, January 25th, 2:30 PM: I'm back to teaching, so I can't worry about football until late in the school day. With the kids working, I log on to Football Outsiders. Michael David Smith has written a column called "17 Plays that Explain the Eagles." It's excellent. I'm screwed.

My friend at Philly News tells me that someone is doing a "where are they now" piece on Keith Krepfle. Obviously, my services won't be needed in the Inquirer.

The story of the day in Philly: Chad Lewis is out, Jeff Thomasen is signed off a construction site to take his place. Apparently, Krepfle wasn't in shape. I hear the exact same conversation three different times:

Person One: "Reid will throw Thomasen the ball. He'll show he's not afraid to throw the ball to anyone." Person Two: "Yeah, but Belichick knows that and will make sure to cover Thomasen." Person One: "Yeah, but Reid knows that and will use Thomasen as a decoy." Person Two: "Yeah, but Belichick knows that and won't put a top defender on him." Person One: "Yeah, and that's when Reid will call a pass to Thomasen."

Twelve days until kickoff, and otherwise sane educators have turned into Vizzini from The Princess Bride. But the television pundits are no better. "The Patriots know how to prepare." "The Eagles are hungrier." "The Patriots are trying to become a dynasty." "The Eagles are just happy to be here." "The Patriots are satisfied after two championships." Lazy conjecture, meaningless hypotheses, amateur psychoanalysis masquerading as football knowledge, all foisted on the public by Skip Bayless and Sean Salisbury, Dan Marino and Tony Kornheiser, Larry King and Star Jones. Everyone's talking football; no one's saying anything.

Back at home, I use my access code to log onto the NFL's media service, and my predicament is compounded. Every press release is there, every stat, every story, every conceivable breakdown. My strengths as a writer are research and stat analysis, but there's no research needed: everything is a click away for newspapers to access and feed the public. No wonder, during my four years with Forecaster, I considered the Super Bowl a vacation week. I spent 17 weeks per year breaking down all the Texans-Bengals games and profiling obscure rookies; the Super Bowl was everyone else's turn to write about backup linebackers and arcane statistics from 1978.

Ekim bursts into my room. He just realized that Manning has had better receivers over the years than McNabb, and he cannot wait to share this epiphany with the football world. But I cut him off. "I don't think I'm going to write about the game," I tell him. "Aaron and the other Outsiders can write about the game better than I can. I'm here in Philly, in hype central. I'm going to write about the hype."

My brother shook his head. "That's not very original. Don't a lot of people write about Super Bowl hype? They write about the price of the ads and the halftime shows and the booked up hotels in the host city. It sounds like a dry well."

For once, Ekim has a point. Even Super Bowl hype has hype. The story was still there, but I would have to spin it to make it my own.

Wednesday, January 26th, 11:30 AM: The Eagles keep making news. Terrell Owens' doctor won't clear him to play. It's the perfect Super Bowl non-story: all speculation. Owens could play against medical advice. He'll be jogging at practice. The local television station has a call-in poll: "If you were Terrell Owens, would you play in the Super Bowl against doctor's advice?" A mere 54% of Philadelphians say yes. Philadelphians are notorious sticklers for medical advice, which is why we're the fattest city in America.

During lunch, I flip through the Daily News want-ads. Dozens of ads from people selling Super Bowl tickets. Dozens from people hoping to buy tickers. Florida residents offering condos, timeshares, backyard sheds. One offer: a two-bedroom condo for four days and two tickets for $15,500. Or, you could go to college for a semester.

I won't be going to Jacksonville. The local bar options are much better. Surprisingly, with all of the region planning to drink next Sunday afternoon, bar owners aren't climbing over one another for business. Chickie's and Pete's, the huge sports bar near the Linc, hasn't shifted into Super Bowl mode. They are still promoting Wing Bowl, Philly's long-running competitive eating surrogate for February football. Their event calendar for February 6th reads: "Philly Soul @ Chicago Rush, Clippers @ Sixers, Super Bowl XXXIX." One would think that, Eagles or not, the Supe would get top billing over Jon Bon Jovi's Arena League team.

Champps in South Jersey is more prepared. Sasha the manager informs me that the pregame will start at 3:00, and the spread will be impressive: sirens, cannons, contests, pinatas, and giveaways every quarter, including televisions and a vacation. He invites me personally to come, as if one person will make a difference in a cavernous restaurant with 200 televisions. It sounds like a great deal, especially for no cover charge. But I tell him that, in the event of a loss, Eagles fans and cannons don't mix well.

But none of this is helping me with my hype story. Oh, Donovan McNabb showed up at a Sixers game and got a standing ovation. Jim Thome declared himself an Eagles fan. At least Temple coach John Cheney was different, spouting off at a banquet about the Iraq war. He was shouted down by attendees who found his remarks inappropriate. They had come to hear news about Jeff Thomasen.

Wednesday, January 26th, 9:00 PM: I pour myself a Makers Mark and begin to write for Outsiders:

The Super Bowl creates an echo chamber of hype. There's so much hype that many reporters don't actually report about the game, but about the media's coverage of the game. In effect, they write about the hype.

Some astute culture critics have written at length about the phenomena of the media reporting about excessive media coverage. These critics are writing about those who write about hype. Ironically, they are members of the media themselves.

This article is about people like me, who write about the culture critics who analyze the journalists who write about the reporters who over-hype the Super Bowl. In effect, I'm writing about those who write about those who write about hype. But I'm doing so self-consciously, commenting on the irony of what I'm writing, so in essence I'm writing about writing about writing about writing about hype.

I look at myself looking into the mirror, looking into the mirror, looking into the mirror...

I wake up hours later. My Makers Mark has spilled on the floor. The dog has passed out from lapping it up. Ekim is on the couch across the room. "I did it," I mumbled. "I wrote myself into my Super Bowl article. It won't be about the Super Bowl, or about hype. It will be about my attempts to write about the Super Bowl."

Ekim smiled. "Whatever, my brother," he said. "C'mon, let's watch television. Mike Golic is on ESPN. He thinks that the Eagles will win because they are hungrier." Together, we sit and watch the talking heads.

Thursday, January 27th, 7:00 AM: I worked all through the night on my article. The local news is on as I prepare for school. They are showing pictures of snowmen with Eagles jerseys, dogs with Eagles caps. They are interviewing physical therapists, doctors, and soothsayers about Owens' ankle. The rock radio station, unable to say the word "Super Bowl" in their commercials for licensing reasons, is giving away an RV trip to "the Super, Duper, Special Game in Jacksonville." Media saturation is total.

I get an e-mail from Aaron. I've seen messages like these before: it's a rejection letter. "Don't take it the wrong way, Mike: we still have big plans for you here at Outsiders. But this isn't the best week for a whacked-out Charlie Kaufman parody."

I write him back explaining my dilemma. All of the big fish have taken over the pond. There isn't much I can add to the national coverage, except maybe some local color and a few of my personal experiences.

Aaron replies quickly. "Actually, Mike, we think we have found some untapped material. Your brother Ekim sent a piece about McNabb being better than Manning and Brady. It really lit up the message board. We're adding him to the staff. It'll be easy for us: two writers with the same caricature!"

I slump off to work, still happy about the Eagles but frustrated by my creative failure. If only I can erase all of these experiences from my mind ... but that's another story.

With this article, we're happy to welcome Michael Tanier to the Football Outsiders staff, provided he's still coherent after another ten days of Super Bowl buildup. He's previously written about the 1996 Broncos, Dan Marino's 1984 season, and the worst playoff teams ever. Mike and his brother Ekim consider themselves America's most prolific NFL ghostwriters after four years as writing features, scouting reports, and NFL draft analysis for Sports Forecaster, which syndicates to over 20 newspaper websites in the US and Canada. When he's not writing or research obscure football facts, Mike teaches high school mathematics in southern New Jersey, while his brother Ekim is in Hollywood trying to sell an screenplay about orchids.


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