So you want to watch football (Part 4)

Also known as “The Completely Subjective Part”.

We’ve now come the end of our series on football basics, and now it’s time to revel in some post-season tidbits and decide what we’re going to do with ourselves for the next weekuntil the showdown in Dallas.  Errr, Arlington?  North Texas?  Wherever the confounded stadium is.  But let’s back up a little and wrap up the season, which you were hopefully enjoying (because you know, you’re all smart about football now) over the past few weeks.

Now if you’ve just started watching football, it’s unlikely that you’re going to go through the serious pains and pangs of withdrawal that more seasoned veterans are going to experience this weekend, but who knows?  From a purely business perspective, the NFL is killing it at the moment, so maybe you’re already hooked.  But don’t worry if you’re not – now that you’ve gotten your feet wet, you’ve got a lifetime of searching for things to do on Saturday between February and August.

If the playoffs were your first foray into the great American machine known as football, and if you followed the immersion method and watched all ten games, then you got to see some pretty fun stuff.  There were two point conversion attempts, both successful and unsuccessful!  There were missed easy field goals!  There were weird fake punt plays!  There was even a safety!

You got to see a sub-500 team beat the defending Super Bowl champions!  You got to see the NFC #6 seed team beat the NFC #1 seed team, in Atlanta!  (Did the Falcons realize that this was a playoffs game?)  You were witness to a master class in Boston-New York sports rivalries and smack talk!  And then you got to watch Rex Ryan waddle down the field and crush the collective souls of New England sports fans!  (How does it feel?)

The great thing about NFL playoffs is that it’s one and done.  You lose, you go home…or to Hawaii.  Sports analysts get themselves all worked up into a tizzy trying to figure out the Super Bowl match-up.  Certainly they were all predicting that come February 6th, the Patriots would be battling it out in Texas.  But, like last year, and even moreso like Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots couldn’t live up to their own hype.  Neither could the Falcons or the Eagles, both of whom were sent home by the Packers, which feels a little fitting, as their legendary coach is the namesake of the coveted trophy.

The Pro Bowl
This year, the Pro Bowl, also known as the NFL’s popularity contest, has moved back to its original spot – the week before the Super Bowl – and original location – Hawaii.  The week leading up to the Pro Bowl is dubbed Pro Bowl Week, and you can follow your favorite players who didn’t make the Super Bowl while they jet off to Hawaii and practice for a completely meaningless game that no one really cares about.

The NFL wants you to think that getting voted to the Pro Bowl is an honor, but consider last year, when the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri made the Pro Bowl team as a starter, despite being out for the majority of the season.  Many players who make the Pro Bowl team and who don’t make the Super Bowl still skip the Pro Bowl anyway, so what does that tell you?

That being said, if you’re really starved for some football, the Pro Bowl is a good way to kill three hours and watch some of the best talent out there.  Feel free to curl up on the couch with your team Snuggie and fall asleep to the glow of the game.

What to Watch in the Offseason
In the offseason, you have a couple of choices as far as TV goes and what to watch, mainly ESPN and the NFL Network.  My personal preference is the NFL Network, as their sole focus is football, whereas ESPN will cover other sports – so that’s really your own call.  If you are going to indulge in some NFL Network, I’d recommend checking out the Top 10 shows, where analysts, sports personalities, players, and coaches count down a top ten of something.  The show SoundFX is also quite enjoyable – the NFL mics players for sound and then plays some of the best soundbites in a half hour show.

How to Prepare for the Next Season
Once the season is over, preparation for the next season begins immediately.  You can first immerse yourself in the combine, which is an entertaining display of athletic prowess held in the lovely Lucas Oil Stadium in the Crossroads of America.  During the combine, top college prospects who have declared for the draft are invited to come and participate in various athletic activities that will allow scouting and personnel teams to accurately gage a particular player’s skill.

The NFL covers the combine extensively, and if you’re feeling starved for some running and throwing, this could be for you.  The highlight of the NFL combine is, in my opinion, Rich Eisen’s 40-yard dash.  It’s quite enjoyable.

Once the combine is over, it’s time to wait for the draft, which the NFL also covers extensively.  They devote hours upon hours trying to guess which team is going to take which players and betting which player is going to be the overall #1 pick in the draft.  The draft occurs in rounds, with each team picking once in the round (unless they have traded away their pick, traded for a pick, been awarded a pick by the league, or been fined a pick by the league), and in a certain order.  If, towards the end of the regular season, your team is doing horribly, what you really hope for then is for them to do the worst of all, because then you will get the first pick in the draft (again, unless you don’t have your pick for some reason).

Being the #1 overall pick in the draft is considered a big deal, and many top players have gone #1 overall, but many #1 overall picks have been duds.  Being a first round draft pick is also considered a sign of a top player.  The name given to the last drafted player is Mr. Irrelevant.

Once the draft is over, you can then set about preparing for football season’s cute little sister, fantasy football.  The amount of analysis, scheming, plotting, and configuring you can do with your team should be enough to hold you over until training camp starts.  Once training camp starts, things really kick into high gear, and you know that the pre-season, and life as we know it, is almost here.

Other things you can do in the offseason include deciding which announcers, refs, and analysts you like and don’t like.

Announcers
The game announcers are often as big of a factor for the home viewer as the game itself.  People tend to have very strong opinions on announcers.  My Dad, for example, hates Jim Nantz.  Whenever Jim Nantz is announcing a Patriots game, I send him a text with a sad face.

Two big pairs are Phil Simms + Jim Nantz (CBS) and Troy Aikman + Joe Buck (Fox).  I don’t really mind either group, but many people dislike Joe Buck.  John Madden was a longtime Sunday Night Football announcer whom fans were divided on – some loved his obvious commentary, and others hated it.  The Sunday Night Football game (NBC) is now announced by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, who is one of my favorites.  The Monday Night Football (ESPN) crew includes Jon Gruden, who wears his pants just a bit too tightly in the groin area and who I’m pretty sure does a hit or two of cocaine before the game starts and is all kinds of awesome, Ron Jaworski, affectionately called “Jaws” and that’s all I know about him, and Mike Tirico, who is so benign that I had to look up his name.

Most announcer crews include token female commentators, who typically act as sideline reporters.  Some females share desk duty for some sports news and wrap-up programs, but there is no female presence on the pre-game shows or in-game commentaries.

Referee Crews
If you watch football long enough, you’ll get to recognize head referees.  My two favorites are Ed Hochuli (because he has amazing biceps and is a lawyer) and Mike Carey (just because).  Some people don’t like Hochuli, and a friend of mine can’t stand Carey (“He talks too slow!  Why is he taking so long to explain the penalty!”), but these two are my favorites.  Learning refs and their crews will give you some credibility – soon you’ll be able to groan, “Oh no, not that ref!  He hates us!  Remember that game in 2006 when he called 15 penalties against us, half of which were completely bogus!  This game is going to suck!”

See, something to look forward to.

Analysts
Sports analysts are the talking heads who keep the NFL buzz going.  They should really be called sports overanalysts though, because that’s what they do.  There is only two things to know about sports analysts: they overanalyze absolutely everything to death and they are the ultimate in fairweather fandom.

Are you sick of Brett Favre?  Are you sick of the Jets?  Are you sick of the Saints (YES)?  Are you sick of Peyton Manning?  Thank the analysts and their well oiled machine for ensuring that the same players are talked about all the time.  Thank the analysts for beating all the dead horses they can find.

Analysts are great at creating hype and excessively hyping up decent players/teams and making them into the next greatest thing in NFL (Mark Sanchez, 2010?  Tony Romo, always?).  If a team or player is doing well, they are all over that team or player like butter on your hot breakfast toast, but if that team or a player starts to falter a little or has a few bad games, all of a sudden it’s doom and gloom, and retirement is looming, imminent, and really the best option.

It’s a vicious cycle, so try not to get too caught up in it.  Listen with a careful ear, and make up your own opinions for yourself.  Some analysts are very statistics heavy.  Others are very records heavy.  While others look at the entire body of work and still others only look at the past couple of games or so.  Analysts are a fickle, fickle bunch, but one thing you can always, always rely on them to do is to tell you that the Patriots, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady are the best in football right now.  Even when they lose in the playoffs, at home, two years in a row.

Potential Lockout
One last thing to consider is that there might not even be football next season.  The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Players’ Association and the NFL is set to expire this year, and the NFL and the PA have until March to come to terms on a new one.  I won’t even pretend to know what they’re going back and forth about, but if they can’t reach an agreement, we’re going to have to figure out what to do with ourselves for a year without football.  It will be bad for all involved, and very, very bad for business, if this comes to pass.

Final Thoughts – My Media Blackout
Did you enjoy the Wild Card round?  It was a mixed bag for me.  I’m partial to the AFC, having grown up in the hick town the Patriots call home, but I’m also partial to seeing teams who beat my favorite team lose.  I’m especially partial to seeing them lose against a sub-500 team when they’re the defending Super Bowl champions, and everyone expects them to win.

[Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  You’re wondering how I could possibly root against New Orleans, a team that brought such hope and inspiration to such a downtrodden city.  How could I not be inspired by such an emotional win – for the city, for the fans, for the team, and for the NFL?  In the end, aren’t we all winners?  But the thing I’ve never been able to figure out is that if the Saints were indeed destined to win a Super Bowl for New Orleans, don’t you think the higher power who decrees such things would have made that happen sooner than 5 years after Katrina?  Say, perhaps, the very next year after Katrina, when the Saints made it all the way to the NFC Conference Championship Game (and lost to the Chicago Bears)?]

That being said, the Saints’ loss was almost enough to make up for the Colts’ loss a few hours later.  Almost.  I’m trying to find the silver lining in that loss, but that game was a couple of weeks ago, and in accordance with official team playoff hopes mourning procedures, I avoided all sports-related media for the next week or so and have put the game mostly out of my mind.

The Pro Bowl is on today, at 7 PM Eastern on Fox.  The Super Bowl is Sunday, February 6.  Coverage begins before you even wake up that day, and official game kickoff time is at 6:30PM.  Christina Aguilera will do the honors of butchering our national anthem prior to the game.

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