Sunday, February 17, 2008

Super Bowl XLII Play-by-Playlooza

It's back! Down and Distance presents it's third annual look at every play, every ad, every inane comment by the announcers in the NFL's biggest game. It's the Super Bowl XLII Play-by-Playlooza!


The scene: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona. Your hosts: Fox Sports' Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Chris Myers and Pam Oliver are roaming the sidelines. Maricopa County sheriff's deputies have been warned to be on the lookout for Joe Namath and told to Tase first, ask questions later. (In the case of Mercury Morris, lethal force has been authorized.) Umpteen Sarah Connor Chronicles promos are loaded into the Betamax. America's greatest advertising minds have cued up an evening of guy-gets-kicked/bitten/shot-in-the-balls fun. Let's get it on!

If you're like me, you try not to even turn on your television on Super Bowl Sunday until the game is actually about to start, because every year, whichever network has the game pushes the pregame envelope even farther back. For all I know, this year Fox just went straight from its Sunday morning right-wing politics program into the pregame show. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's what they did, because early in the afternoon, I happened to flip to Fox, and there was crazy person Shepard Smith leering out at me with his creepy child-molester eyes under the rubric of some pre-pre-pre-pregame show. That guy weirds me the fuck out. I accidentally flipped back about two hours later, and someone was interviewing the ancient Patriots linebackers. Tedy Bruschi was playing the saxophone for some fucking reason, and Junior Seau was wearing a Superfly hat. Once I saw that, I resolved not to go back until the game was about to start.

So I check back at 5 p.m. (Central), when, according to my TiVo, the game coverage is to begin. No more pregame, right? Well, Joe Buck informs me that I've arrived at the "Built Ford Tough Pre-Kick Show." Buck and Aikman talk about the Patriots and the Giants, and I'm sure it's all very compelling, just like I'm sure that not a word of it hasn't already been said eight different ways in the six hours of pregame. So we'll just fast-forward through all of it.

The teams come out on the field -- first the Giants, then the Patriots. Remember back when they used to do individual introductions at the Super Bowl? One team's offensive unit would be introduced ("... and playing quarterback, number 14, Craig Morton!"), as would the other team's defense. They don't do that anymore, and you have the New England Patriots to blame for it. Before Super Bowl XXXVI, the St. Louis Rams received the traditional intorduction, but the Patriots insisted that they would only take the field as a team. So the Rams came off looking like prima-donna camera hogs who put self before team, even though they were just following tradition, while the Patriots came off looking like gritty, devil-may-care underdogs.

And this is as good a time as any to raise the specter of Super Bowl XXXVI. Let's recap that game, briefly. The Rams, who had already won a Super Bowl, came into the game with a record-setting offense that may have been the best ever. Led by the league MVP at quarterback, they were two-touchdown favorites. The Patriots, meanwhile, were seen as a team of overachievers who had played way over their heads and were sure to get ground to pieces in the Super Bowl. But with a two-pronged strategy of slowing down the game while on offense and ruthless brutality on defense, the Patriots were able to pull off the upset.

Go ahead and print out that paragraph, OK? Now, let's compare and contrast the entrances:

The Giants take the field to Kanye West's Stronger. Telling lyric: "That that [sic] don't kill me can only make me stronger."
The Patriots take the field to Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train. Telling lyric: "Going off the rails on a crzy train."
A team's choice of song for the introductions is always quite revealing. Two years ago the Seattle Seahawks came out to Bittersweet Symphony. A lot of unfair things happened to them that day, and after taking the field with such a dumbass soundtrack, they deserved every goddam one of them. I don't know who on the Patriots picked Crazy Train, but I'm willing to point the finger at Tom Brady. I mean, this guy has said -- on the record -- that he listens to Sunday Bloody Sunday before games because it's a good football song. Of course it is. Just ask anyone in Belfast.

The Giants come out skipping and strutting and shimmying and waving their arms and trying to get the crowd fired up.
The Patriots trot out onto the field two-by-two, all steely determination and no fun, looking for all the world like the 501st Legion entering the Jedi Temple at the beginning of the Great Purge. (And don't pretend like you don't fucking know what I'm talking about, either. Super Bowl XLII, Episode III ... it's all of a piece.)
I can't help but think of that famous bit of NFL Films footage from the Super Bowl XXXVI pregame. As the Patriots were waiting to take the field (as a team, of course), Tom Brady was going absolutely apeshit in the tunnel, bouncing up and down and yammering non-stop at Drew Bledsoe, who, if he hadn't made up his mind that this kid was his best shot at a ring, might well have killed him just to shut him up. Contrast that with the Patriots' imperial march on 2008, and you just get a bad feeling about all of this.

Jordin Sparks comes out to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, and it's a happy coincidence for Fox that she's actually from Glendale, Arizona, and that her dad played for the New York Giants, because that way it looks like she has a real reason for doing this, beyond pimping Season 7 of American Idol. (Don't believe me? Remember who sang the national anthem at last season's NFC Championship Game in Chicago -- the final Fox football broadcast of the year? That's right: Elliott Yamin.) I have no doubt that if Blake Lewis had won last year's Idol, he'd have been here, instead, beat-boxing the shit out of the national anthem. And maybe Fox would have engineered it so that the Seahawks would be representing the NFC.

Before the game, you could place a prop bet in Vegas on how long it would take Jordin to sing the whole thing. The over/under was 1 minute 42 seconds. By my stopwatch, she went 1:55 from "O, say" to "home of the brave." Which is fine by me. America fucking rules, so it's worth nearly two full minutes of love. But what doesn't rule is her disgraceful performance. How many times do these clowns have to be told that the national anthem is not up for reinterpretation? We all know the melody, and we all expect you to follow it. We know where there should be pauses and where there shouldn't. The damn thing is hard enough to sing without some self-indulgent TV contest winner putting five extra syllables into the word "streaming." But there she goes. And the crowd roars its approval, because she's a hometown girl, and she's America's sweetheart and whatever. But it was a travesty, and she's a miserable beast so full of her own bullshit that the whites of her eyes are poopy brown.

Harsh? Sorry, but I refer you to the allegations cropping up all over the Internets that Jordin in fact lip-synched her entire performance -- allegations that have yet to appear in the mainstream media, which tells us one of two things: either they're true, and the MSM is trying to cover it up, or they're not true. Well, I just reviewed the tape, and I think they're true. Her voice and her face were a fraction of a second out of joint -- the inflection of her voice would change, then her face would change to match it -- and there's no way it was a simple technical problem.

A lot of people seem to get bent out of shape over performers who lip-synch. Me, I don't care. When you go to see Madonna in concert (and I'm sure all of you who understood the reference to the 501st Legion are also big, BIG Madonna fans), you go to see Madonna -- see her run around and dance and vogue and do all that high-energy stuff. Well, she can't do all of that and still sing, too. She'd be huffing and puffing, and she'd sound terrible. So she lip-synchs. The audience gets to hear the song as they know it and love it, and Madonna gets to entertain without sounding like your overweight uncle trying to take a shit. It's a victimless crime.

Look at the biggest lip-synch scandal of all: Milli Vanilli. They won the Grammy Award for best new artist of 1990. Then, when it came out that the Predator-looking dudes on the album cover and in all the music videos didn't actually sing the awful songs on the record, that they were just lip-synching, they were stripped of the Grammy. What has long fascinated me about the Milli Vanilli case is that the Grammy people -- who always, always claim that their awards are only about the music, not about looks or record sales or videos or anything else -- didn't just track down the people who did sing on the album and give the award to them. If the music was so good it was worth a Grammy, shouldn't it be irrelevant who sang it?

So, my policy is simple: Stars can lip-synch in all but one circumstance. Unfortunately for Jordin Sparks, that one circumstance is when they sing the national anthem of the United States of America. You JUST DO NOT lip-synch the national anthem. Afraid you might not sound your very best? Too goddam bad, sugar. When you are there to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, it's not about you. It's about America. We've all heard well-meaning performers butcher the song. We clap anyway, because it's not the performer we're clapping for. It's America. You know, America? The Bill of Rights? Soldiers, sailors and Marines? Amber waves of grain? United Flight 93? Yeah, that stuff. I think that if some kid your age can pull together the courage to walk the dark streets of Baghdad carrying only a rifle and a knapsack, the least you can do is go out there and sing one fucking song in his honor without a net. Can you do that for me, pumpkin?

And, oh yeah, your dad wasn't even that good.

Last year's Super Bowl was in Miami, so the coin toss was handled by the best and most famous Miami Dolphin of all time, Dan Marino. (And by that, of course, I do mean "Fuck you, 1972 Dolphins.") This year's game is in Arizona Cardinals territory, so the coin toss will be handled, appropriately enough, by the late San Francisco 49ers legend Bill Walsh. More specifically, by his two grown kids and by what the P.A. announcer refers to as "three of his finest leaders: Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Steve Young." Which would be nice if it were true, but Young never served as anything but a backup to Joe Montana under Walsh. It wasn't until after George Seifert had replaced Walsh (in 1989) and Montana had been shipped to Kansas City (in 1992) that Young was finally considered a team leader.

But the NFL kindly asks that I not fuck with their narrative. Besides, the focal point here is Rice, who didn't wear a tie when he was introduced during the roll call of Super Bowl MVPs before Super Bowl XL, and doesn't do so again here. Instead, he appears to be wearing one of his Super Bowl rings on a chain around his neck. It's kind of high school, really. But it's becoming obvious that Jerry Rice doesn't do ties.

It's also becoming obvious that Jerry Rice, still the owner of nearly every major NFL receiving record, is no longer famous for his exploits on the football field. As he appeared on the screen, my wife asked, "Who is that?" And I said, "Jerry Rice." And she said, "The guy from Dancing With the Stars?" Now, usually, when someone tells a story like this, the point is to show how clueless the wife is. But that's not really the case here. Rice made a decision to introduce himself to a new generation of Americans as a dancing, prancing fool. He made his bed; now he has to lie in it in his shiny tap shoes.

So the team captains gather at midfield: Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Junior Seau, Kevin Faulk and Ty Warren for the Patriots; and Eli Manning, Shaun O'Hara, Antonio Pierce and Jeff Feagles for the Giants. Michael Strahan, who has his helmet on but apparently isn't a member of the coin-toss party, comes out later and wanders around the periphery as referee Mike Carey (Yesssss! If it can't be Ed Hochuli, let it be Carey!) shows the coin (Lombardi Trophy = heads; Roman numerals = tails) and explains the ground rules. Ronnie Lott gets to do the actual flipping, and in a nice touch, Feagles, in his 20th season but playing his first Super Bowl, gets to call it: tails. Tails it is. Giants will get the ball. And we're ready for tackle football!


KICKOFF 15:00As the Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski tees up the ball, Joe Buck speaks for a grateful nation when, after two weeks of chatter, and one day of Arlen Specter whoring it up for the cameras, he spits out: "Finally. Football." Gostkowski puts toe to ball, and 10,000 camera flashes go off. Photography tip: When you're in a stadium that's lit up brighter than noon in Death Valley, you don't need the flash. Dominik Hixon fields the kick three yards deep in the end zone and brings it out to the 23. For once, thankfully, no one mentions that Hixon was the guy Kevin Everett nearly killed himself on -- as if it's Hixon's fault.
1-10-NYG2314:55Eli Manning trots onto the field, and Buck asks "Mr. Aikman" to describe for us what goes through a quarterback's mind as he starts a Super Bowl for the first time. "For me, Joe, it was very emotional day, and you get out there on the field, and you're not really sure how your body's going to react." Which takes us back to that first play of Super Bowl XXVII, Cowboys vs. Bills, when Aikman took the snap, looked up, saw Cornelius Bennett closing in, froze, and then his bowels let loose so violently that it made the seat of his pants sag. Aikman says we may not get a good read on Manning "Because of the nature of his makeup," whatever that means. Manning keeps all his poop up inside and hands off to Brandon Jacobs. In a clumsy bit of foreshadowing, Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel gets his hands on Jacobs in the backfield, but Jacobs escapes for a better-than-nothing 3-yard gain.
2-7-NYG26 14:14While the Giants chew up nearly the entire play clock, a graphic introduces the Patriots D. Buck quotes Vrabel as saying that when the New England linebackers "play awful, we're 'old'; when we play well, we're 'experienced.' " Fair enough, ya old fart. Another handoff, this time for 2 yards. For the first of many times tonight, the Fox microphones pick up someone -- an official, I assume -- shouting "We're done!" to indicate that the play is dead.
3-5-NYG28 13:32We get our first in-game look at Bill Belichick, who's wearing a ghastly red, short-sleeve hoodie. Despite a low snap and heavy pressure, Manning hangs in the pocket and hits Plaxico Burress, who has found an enormous hole in the New England zone (and Pats fans should hope to God that that was in fact a zone defense, because otherwise it would mean they have Randall Gay manned up on the only real deep threat the Giants have), for 14 yards.
1-10-NYG4212:53A 3-yard completion to Madison Hedgecock gets Buck going on the perpetual-motion circus that surrounds poor Manning. "They have picked apart the performance -- heck, we have -- the personality, the leadership ability, the body language of Eli Manning." And yet, considering how he's elevated his play in the postseason, "if there has been that imaginary corner, he seems to have turned it." Go ahead and parse that baby. If there really is an "imaginary corner," then it's not imaginary, is it? Aikman just shrugs and says that it's a good thing Manning didn't turn the ball over in any of the Giants' playoff games. Else, the Giants wouldn't be here. I honestly don't know that you can make that claim, but I don't have three Super Bowl rings. And I never shit my pants on the field like Aikman did. (This is how urban legends get started.)
2-7-NYG45 12:03While all that talking was happening, the play clock ground all the way down to :00 before Brandon Jacobs picks up 1 yard. The four plays so far have taken 41, 42, 39 and 50 seconds. Someone's been watching those tapes of the Patriots slowing the tempo on the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI -- as well as the tapes of Super Bowl XXIV, when the Giants slowed down the game and beat the Bills. Who was the Giants' D-coordinator that year? The guy in the ghastly red, short-sleeved hoodie.
3-6-NYG46 11:17Aikman: "There's no doubt that the New York Giants want to run the football." Really? Oh, no, I can't believe that, Troy. Another third down, another conversion, as Manning hits Steve Smith for 8. Also, another case of Randall Gay getting burned for that same third-down conversion. Rodney Harrison and Randall Gay are both hurt on the play -- probably on orders from the league, since we're four minutes into the game and haven't had a single commercial break.
AD!AD!The first ad of the game is also the first Anheuser-Busch ad of the game. The plot: Bud Light gives you the ability to breathe fire. Guy uses that ability to light candles, then has an allergic reaction to cat dander and starts sneezing fire. After a bunch of cheap-looking special effects and the same yowling-cat sound effect that we've all heard in a thousand other ads, we're told that the fire-breathing power has been removed from the beer. Dumb and unfunny.
AD!AD!An Audi ad plays off the scene in the Godfather in which Jack Woltz wakes up to find his horse's head in his bed. In this "spoof," a guy wakes up to find the grill of his luxury car in his bed. Takes far too long to develop, so that by the time we get to the payoff, we're just annoyed. If it were half as long, it would be twice as funny. And what's two times zero?
1-10-NE46 10:32As we stumble back from our first commercial break, we see an aerial shot of what appears to be a very pleasant midwinter day in Phoenix. So naturally, the roof of the stadium is closed. Also, we get a replay of the hit that led to the injury timeout: Harrison lowered his helmet and intended to spear Smith, but Gay's arm got in the way. In a nice bit of camera work, we can see that Gay is screaming and gripping his arm before he even hits the ground. Back to live action, Brandon Jacobs lowers his shoulder and blasts through the New England line for 7. Aikman: "Brandon Jacobs, for the last couple of weeks, and you virtually see it every single time he runs the football, going right through Merriweather." First of all, nobody's played any football at all for two weeks. And second, Brandon Merriweather played for Green Bay?
2-3-NE39 9:49Ahmad Bradshaw gains 2. Pam Oliver reports on her conversation with Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. If Eli is playing well, they're going to have him throw the ball! If he's not playing well, then they're going to run the ball more! Hey, don't let the cat out of the bag, there! Since we're talking about Eli, we get a shot of Peyton Manning up in a luxury box.
3-1-NE37 9:01On 3rd-and-inches, Bradshaw smashes into the line, picks up the necessary inches and then, just for the hell of it, carries Ty Warren for eight more yards even though Warren has him in a headlock Aikman gets tongue-tied trying to say "tremendous elusiveness." I don't blame him. Bradshaw's a beast.
1-10-NE29 8:17Manning tries to dump it off to Kevin Boss in the left flat, but throws it too low. Promo time! Coming up at halftime: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. More on them when the time comes.
2-10-NE29 8:11Jacobs goes right, away from the safety blitz, for 3.
3-7-NE26 7:27As the Giants line up for yet another third-and-fairly-long, we sneak a peek at Tom Brady sitting on his ass, without his helmet on, not tossing a ball around. It's not that he looks like he doesn't care, because obviously he does, but he doesn't look like a guy who feels any kind of urgency. I mean, I don't care that we're only halfway through the first quarter. It's the Super Bowl. It's urgent. On the field, Manning eludes the blitz, rolls right, and despite having Eugene Wilson wrapped around his ankles, hits Steve Smith for 9 yards and the first down.
1-10-NE17 6:41Manning goes for Burress in the end zone, but Ellis Hobbs gets his paw in there and bats the ball away. It's a nice play, one that we'll forget later on. The most impressive thing about the play, however, is that Burress doesn't come up screaming for a flag, as he usually does whenever he goes into the end zone but doesn't come out with a touchdown. Belichick is pissed that Hobbs didn't intercept the ball.
2-10-NE17 6:35Jacobs can't turn the corner. Loss of 1. Since we're down in the red zone, Aikman astutely points out that the Patriots, as dominant as they were for much of the season, weren't very good at red zone defense. If a team could get inside the 20, they usually got a touchdown. Which meant they'd lose 54-14 rather than 54-6, but you get his point.
3-11-NE18 5:47Old-school Eli puts in a cameo appearance with a 4-yard completion over the middle on 3rd-and-11.
4-7-NE14 5:06Lawrence Tynes, the NFC Championship Game goat-turned-goat-turned-hero, drills the 32-yard field goal. Three points seems pretty cruddy after 10 minutes and 17 plays, right? Foreshadowing! N.Y. Giants 3, New England 0