I know that football involves complex, intriguing strategy, out-thinking your opponent in addition to out–pounding the shit out of him. There’s a method behind the madness of the mess of collisions, handoffs, passes, tackles, and tangled limbs. I’ve watched the SportsCenter guys explain this my entire life; I’ve heard my friends argue about it; I’ve read books about it.
The problem is that when I actually watch a game, I can’t see it. What I see is 22 guys in spandex, many of them larger than my mom’s Corolla, crashing into each other as forcefully as possible, pausing for three minutes of beer ads, and repeating. The only exceptions to this are the games I attended in college, when I saw 44 guys crashing into each other.
Football fans are shaking their heads right now and dismissing me as an idiot, and you know what? That’s fair. I have the same reaction when people tell me they just find baseball “too slow.” The National Football League made roughly $6 billion last year, so it’s safe to assume it’s doing something right; if I’d grown up watching the game, I don’t doubt I’d be counting down the minutes to Monday night, obsessing over my fantasy team, and making terrorist threats to Cablevision for refusing to carry the new NFL Network—but I didn’t.
Having tried to get into the sport for years without much success, I haven’t been able to make that crucial New York football commitment: Jets or Giants? As both teams played their final home games before slipping into the playoffs, it seemed like the perfect time to give America’s de facto national pastime another chance.
To be fair, the Giants’ Christmas Eve Holiday Spectacular was not exactly a showcase of the sport’s finest qualities. After weeks of squabbling and mini-scandals—Michael Strahan bawling out an ESPN reporter with a mouth full of sandwich, Tiki Barber’s early and often discussed retirement, Barber and Jeremy Shockey criticizing head coach Tom Coughlin, everyone else on the East Coast criticizing quarterback Eli Manning—they lost for the sixth time in their last seven games, to the New Orleans Saints, in what could be kindly termed an utter collapse.
There are elements of football that I enjoy, and Reggie Bush illustrated the main one beautifully, though unfortunately he did so for the visiting team. Dodging leviathans, he broke out of the game’s torpid, yard-by-yard pace and into invigorating unimpeded runs without crushing anyone or being crushed (thanks, admittedly, to the crushing being done by his teammates). This is, of course, a major part of football, but every time it happens, it feels to me like cheating, though for a good cause—Odysseus outwitting the cyclops. Leon Washington has provided flashes of it for the Jets this
season, and when Tiki Barber is on—as he wasn’t in the Saints game but emphatically was the following week versus the Redskins—this is exactly what he excels at.
Barber’s decision to retire at the peak of his game caused quite a stir, but I can’t blame the guy for wanting to get out while he can still walk and see straight. Nearly every week various players are carted off the field with a cornucopia of injuries and head traumas; there is an X-ray room in Giants Stadium, right near the players’ locker room, presumably because it would be a shame to waste a trip to the hospital if parts of your body were merely ripped, strained, or torn rather than actually broken.
There are more than 50 players on the Giants’ roster, and as you’d expect, it’s a diverse bunch. The Friday before Christmas, with the locker room floor strewn with wrapping paper (in addition to the usual jockstraps, towels, and pads), Michael Strahan loudly mocked R.W. McQuarters’s briefs (“Calvin Klein ain’t no friend of mine!”) on the way to the shower, while in the another corner kicker Jay Feely engaged a teammate in animated, erudite philosophical debate about the nature of our “results-driven so
The team’s locker room is peppered with inspirational quotes. “My ego was centered around my teams [sic] success, not my accomplishments— Bill Russell,” reads one large sign. (I bet that missing apostrophe has slowly been driving Jay Feely insane for the last two years.) Another declares, “We are what we repeatedly do—excellence is not an act, but a habit.” The same could be said of fumbles or interceptions, but never mind.
These sentiments were not much in evidence after the debacle against the Saints (30-7), when players used various combinations of the words “disappointing,” “embarrassing,” and “humiliating” in their post-game interviews. Tom Coughlin, who looks as if he’s in dire need of some Pepcid and a deep-tissue massage even on his best days, said he felt “frustration and some despair” and went on to actually apologize for ruining Christmas.
Few places are quieter than a football locker room after a loss. When Terrell Owens criticized the Cowboys’ game plan after a defeat a few weeks ago, analysts—particularly former players, like ESPN’s Mark Schlereth—were beside themselves, not so much because he had cast aspersions on his coaches and quarterback but because he had done so while wearing a Santa hat. The slightest sign of levity is on par with wearing a low-cut red dress to a funeral.
Of course all professional athletes are upset after a big loss, and as fans we expect nothing less. It never occurred to me to tell the Mets, after the heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Cardinals this fall, “Hey, buck up, guys. It’s only a game.” (It didn’t occur to me to tell the Giants that either, but only because many of them were over 300 pounds and irate.) It’s “only a game” only when it’s not your game.
The Giants Stadium press box, meanwhile, is no place to watch a sporting event. A glass wall protects against the weather but also muffles most of the crowd noise, giving the space an incongruous library-like quietness. Located on the ninth level, it’s high enough to make Chris Snee look antlike and requires reporters to either bring high-powered binoculars, follow along on a nearby TV, or as in my case, squint at the knot of players on the field and wonder what the fuck is happening. You can, at least, get a decent view of Fox’s automated camera, which swoops over the field on a high-tech track and looks like a hostile alien robot; I kept expecting it to start firing lasers. By the fourth quarter of the Giants-Saints game, this would have been a welcome distraction.
The NFL is, deliberately and very successfully, tailored for television, and as far as I can tell, tailgating is the only real reason to show up in person. You can say what you want about the Meadowlands—that it’s a gridlocked eyesore in the middle of a desolate, radioactive swamp, for example—and about the denizens of New Jersey, my native state. But the crowd in East Rutherford knows damn well what to do with a parking lot. We take to wide expanses of asphalt like fish to water.
Any warm and fuzzy feelings of state pride generated by the impressive spectacle of Lot 16 pre-partying, however, had dissipated by the time I finished walking up the Gate B spiral at halftime on the New Year’s Eve Jets game. This is the sort of crowd that’s fun to drink with but no longer enjoyable once drunk. Flocks of jersey-wearing guys gathered around the middle of the spiral, threw beer bottles, cursed Raiders fans, and chanted, “Show us your tits!” at a flattered but shy Jersey girl a few levels up. (Eventually, the lower-tier crowd segued into a rousing cry of “T-I-T-S! Tits! Tits! Tits!” which, OK guys, points for creativity. But you’re still shitheads.)
I’ve always thought I should try to be a Jets
fan; they’re underdogs enough that they might offset my Yankees fandom and, in combination with the Nets, help me get into heaven. But they’ve given me precious little to hang on to over the last few years; it’s not so much that they haven’t been good, but rather that they’ve been assiduously dull.
I honestly think I’d love rookie head coach Eric “Man-Genius” Mangini if only I weren’t trying to report on him; the pleasant, baby-faced 35-year-old has made politely stonewalling sportswriters into an art form. Well, no—stonewalling sportswriters was already an art form, but in Mangini, it has found its Picasso. It’s now entering its blue period. The erstwhile Bill Belichick protégé refuses to speak in soundbites or pithy quotes, which is refreshing in theory but, in practice, profoundly dull (do not ingest a Mangini press conference while driving or operating heavy machinery). He has a wry, Saharan sense of humor, which he rarely allows himself to display; after the Jets’ win over the Oakland Raiders gave them a wild-card slot, safety Kerry Rhodes said, “He was happy. He may have smiled twice.”
In Chad Pennington (a “Rhodes Scholarship finalist,” as broadcasters never tire of reminding us), the Jets have a solid, hardworking quarterback who’s also smart enough not to feed the media machine. He has an impressive bearing, though. It’s easy to imagine Pennington doing something else—owning his own business, maybe, or running for local office—whereas it’s very difficult to imagine the much maligned Eli Manning doing anything other than playing beer pong off of a football field.
With the team coming off a lousy, injury- riddled 4-12 season, and with Chad Pennington rehabbing a shoulder injury, no one expected much from the Jets this season, and they have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulder. “A lot of people outside, they’re not with us every day. . . . We know from inside what kind of players we have,” said Rhodes, before the Raiders game, in a typical statement. Asked afterward if they’d used the doubters as motivation, he said no: “Of course you’re going to hear it, but . . . we didn’t care what nobody else thought—we still don’t care. We have to play for ourselves.”
Wide receiver Laveranues Coles took Mangini’s dictum that injuries must not be used as excuses—although I have no idea how a fucking concussion isn’t a legitimate excuse—to extremes after the Raiders win. Asked about the brutal hit he’d received in the previous week’s Dolphins game, he snapped, “Ask me about the playoffs.” The reporter took umbrage and turned away, muttering, “Great, now you’re telling me what questions to ask.”
“Don’t tell me what to ask. Fuck you.”
“Fuck you! . . . Yeah, boy, you better get far.”
“What are you gonna do, huh?”
At which point the Jets’ alert PR staff swooped in and gently hustled the reporter away before he could find out.
“Sorry you had to see that,” said Coles, who, incidentally, was wearing a sequined Pink Panther T-shirt throughout the exchange. I debated, but ultimately decided against, asking him to show me his tits.
I watched the playoffs the way the NFL is meant to be watched: on TV, with beer. The length alone made the back-to-back games feel like a real event—seven hours of football (or rather, about three hours of football and roughly four hours of that excruciating Chevy ad featuring John Mellencamp’s “Our Country”).
On the screen, I could pick up details I’d have missed at the stadium—just how much Eagles QB Jeff Garcia resembles my 45-year-old 11th-grade earth science teacher, for example (you have no idea until he takes off his helmet). Also, reading Jeremy Shockey’s lips after a failed play is fun, educational, and perfect for drinking games. The trade-off is enduring Fox’s epileptic-fit-inducing on-field graphics, shameless plugs for 24, and random animated-robot prancing on the side of my screen. Whoever directs Fox’s sports coverage is suffering from some combination of attention deficit disorder, megalomania, or a severe sugar high.
Jets fans are not optimistic people, and while they were disappointed with their team’s 37-16 loss to the Patriots, very few of them seemed surprised. Instead, they were relieved and grateful that the season hadn’t been a putrid disaster, as expected. The Pats’ Tom Brady, object of passionate yet manly adoration from sportscasters everywhere, ran another excellent game, precisely orchestrated by Belichick. Afterward, the flinty New England coach hurled cameramen out of his way in order to briefly encircle Mangini with his forearms, a perplexing and unfamiliar gesture that bore a superficial resemblance to a hug.
Shortly thereafter, the Giants played a respectable but futile game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who beat them 23-20 in the final seconds.
Eli Manning was unimpressive but, to everyone’s visible relief, kept the game from spiraling out of control. The loss left Tom Coughlin’s future with the team in doubt, but since he looks to be one more interception away from a massive mental and physical breakdown, perhaps a forced vacation would be for the best. Meanwhile, Tiki Barber survived one last series of crushing blows and, with thoughts of lucrative television contracts dancing in his head, was unable to suppress a smile after the loss. “It’s a game,” he said afterward, “and now it’s done. I’m excited about life.”
I’m excited about pitchers and catchers.