My team, the Cleveland Browns, seldom makes the NFL playoffs, and only when several of the league’s top quarterbacks have been felled by syphilis. But I watch the playoffs anyway, even without my Browns. I watch because the NFL consistently provides the most riveting programming in all of television, and the AFC and NFC playoffs showcase the best football of the season.
Last weekend, for instance, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch broke seven tackles, shoved a Saints defender to the ground, scored a game-winning touchdown and hurled the goalpost into Puget Sound. It was a great play. I leapt from my seat and yelled. I don’t care about the Seahawks. The Seahawks don’t care about the Seahawks. If they did, they would not have gone 7-9. But Marshawn Lynch’s Beast Mode touchdown was all I could talk about Monday at work.
If you read the headline, you know where I’m going with this. The NFL playoffs are the most riveting thing on television. NFL pre-game shows – they have the distinction of being some of the worst programming on television, and I say that as someone who watches Jersey Shore. There’s not an NFL pre-game show worth a damn. My brother and I had 30 minutes to kill before the start of the Packers-Eagles game on Sunday. “We’re not watching the pre-game,” my brother said, displaying the wisdom of a man who has had his intelligence insulted one too many times. We watched Mr. Show — now playing on IFC — instead. And we were right to do it. I don’t have to wonder about what I missed. I know exactly what I missed. It’s the same show every week.
Five guys – why not six? why not nine like the Supreme Court? – sit around a desk. Three of them are ex-jocks, one is an ex-coach and one is a broadcast professional. One of the jocks talks like he has golf balls in his mouth. For some reason, he calls the highlights. One of the jocks has golf balls for a brain. He tells you what everyone is thinking. One of the jocks is the voice of reason. He yells a lot. The ex-coach is rumored to be up for every coaching vacancy in the NFL. He never comments on this, even though he’s on television for an hour every week. The quartet is herded by a dead-inside host who stares into his whiskey bottle every night wondering why he bothered going to journalism school.
You would think, from the amount of host and co-host laughter, that NFL pre-games are the funniest shows on television. But I can tell you for a fact that nothing actually funny has ever been said – intentionally – on an NFL pre-game show. In spite of this gaping void of humor, the five men sitting around the desk cackle uproariously every eight seconds. It always reminds me of the guy who’s on a date and it’s not going well and he’s telling jokes and she’s not laughing so to dull the awkwardness he laughs at his own jokes but that only makes the situation more awkward so she excuses herself to go to the bathroom and never comes back and he thinks, “I guess women don’t like a guy with a sense of humor because I heard plenty of laughter during that conversation.”
When it comes time for predicting who will win, only heavy favorites are chosen, and even then the guys are only right about 36 percent of the time. A controversial underdog pick is a team with a Pro Bowl quarterback that’s getting points at home.
All of which brings me to my biggest pet peeve – the banter. The banter for every show is mind-numbingly predictable. From Week 1 through the Super Bowl the same platitudes are mouthed, and they are followed by the same game of here’s-why-you’re-a-dolt. This is everything I have ever learned in a pre-game show, all compiled into one conversation, to save you the trouble of ever watching another NFL pre-game show again.
“If they don’t get good quarterback play, they’re not going to win. Quarterback is the most important position on the field.”
“I know you’re a former quarterback, so you have to say that, but this game will come down to how the offensive line gets off the ball.”
“The guys in the trenches will be a factor, but I think the running game, and controlling the clock, are the real key to this game. If the other team doesn’t have the ball, how can they score?”
“Are you guys kidding, me? It’s defense. Defense wins championships. You keep the other team from scoring, you win the game.”
“Defense might win championships, but special teams can lose you games, and I look for special teams to play a significant role in today’s game.”
“I think there’s one thing you fellows are forgetting and it’s a little thing called chemistry. If you don’t have chemistry, the quarterback and the special teams and all that do not matter. The game is won and lost in the locker room.”
“I’ll tell you the most important guys in that locker room – the playmakers. You’ve got to have playmakers. I don’t care how well everyone gets along, you have to have players who make plays.”
“You can have all the playmakers in the world. If you don’t have the right coaching scheme, none of it matters. Someone’s got to call the plays and get these guys fired up. I was a coach in this league for one-and-a-half-years. I know. It’s all about coaching.”
“I hate to say it, guys, but weather will be the deciding factor in this game. I just took a look at the latest report and it’s going to be brutal out there.”
“That’s a good point. I think there’s one thing we’re all forgetting, with all this talk, and it’s the real key to winning this game. The stadium is downtown, next to the water, with that wind whipping off the water, and that’s why I think today’s game comes down to City Planner Tom Smern and his ill-fated decision to put a stadium next to a body of water that will be frozen for half the season. Mr. Smern has ensured that every game after October will be played in sub-Arctic temperatures as thousands of seagulls, too stupid to fly south for the winter, fight for their survival in the bitter cold, circling the stadium ominously, stopping only to swoop into the parking lot and carry away small children. And the other key is quarterback.”
I believe criticism should be coupled with advice, so here is my advice to the producers of the NFL’s pre-game shows. Get rid of two of the jocks. Go with a host, a coach and a player. Lose 90 percent of the analysis. Report more news, mainly that which affects the nation’s fantasy football teams. Talk more to the reporters who are hunkered down with the teams. Don’t let the guys predict who they think will win; none of them ever picks a heavy underdog. During the playoffs, every once in a while, mention the Browns, please, for me.
(Joe Donatelli is a senior editor at Break Media who writes and edits for Made Man. He has written about The Day His Bachelorhood Ended, How Dreams Help Your Brain and Taking A Dip In A Sensory Deprivation Tank. You can contact him at jdonatelli(at)breakmedia.com.)