Friday, February 4, 2011

Something's Missing


As the NFL promotional machine cranks itself up to new and more ridiculous levels than ever, the actual game looms mercifully Sunday as an antidote to the silliness and self-indulgence that have characterized the country’s most popular sport’s signature event. Soon, we won’t have to worry about wigs and fur coats and endless analysis about key players and difference-makers. It won’t matter whether Ben Roethlisberger sang “Piano Man” Tuesday night – and off key, at that. It will be football time, and all will be right for fans who grow ever weary of the league’s attempts to turn a competition into a spectacle and a spectacle into a parody.

We get a gift this time, as two old-time franchises trudge to the middle of False Face’s pleasure dome. No nouveau squads in garish uniforms (see Cardinals, Arizona; Seahawks, Seattle and Titans, Tennessee). No mascots. No cheerleaders, although not even El Hombre is a big enough purist to wish away that part of the show. We have two top-10 QBs, a pair of violent defenses and a notable absence of trash-spewing players and coaches. The league’s bad guys are home, licking their wounds and preparing to launch envious Twitter assaults. Amidst the 21st century nonsense that has become so much a part of the NFL experience, this game is welcome respite.

Not everything is perfect. The teams will meet indoors. And Fox will no doubt be at its self-aggrandizing best. But the worst blotch on the game is the absence of the one man capable of giving it the necessary gravitas and historical perspective. The man for whose baritone a game like this was made.

John Facenda.

The Voice of God headed to the heavenly press box in 1984, leaving NFL Films with a deficit at the microphone. His successors – the great Harry Kalas among them – though game and certainly capable, never duplicated Facenda’s legendary delivery. Hearing him say, “Otis Taylor turned a routine hitch pass into a devastating touchdown,” was almost like listening to John F. Kennedy ask us what we could do for our country. That was Facenda. That was the magic of the 1970s NFL, and that’s what El Hombre wishes he could have for this one. Pittsburgh-Green Bay does not deserve anything but the best. This matches the teams with the most Super Bowl titles (Pittsburgh: 6) and NFL championships (Green Bay: 11). It conjures memories of Vince Lombardi and the Packer Sweep, and Chuck Noll and the Steel Curtain. If any game cried out for Facenda, it was this one.

Facenda’s narration of NFL Films’ half-hour Super Bowl presentations imbued even the blandest game – like the tedious ’73 Miami-Washington ordeal – with a sense of drama. Routine plays became heroic. Big performances were rendered legendary. As the Steelers, Packers and their compelling histories prepare to clash, nothing short of Facenda’s authoritative presence could provide the necessary context. No matter how great the game is (or isn’t), there will definitely be something missing, especially as the league and its propaganda partners contort their minds in pursuit of enough “news” to fill the long hours leading up to the game.

On the field, we might not be disappointed, even if a small percentage of previous Super Bowls has been worthy of the game’s appellation. There can be little argument that the two teams represent the best of their respective conferences. Neither “shocked the world” by reaching the Super Bowl, even though Green Bay did emerge from the wild-card position to play for all the cheese. Many thought Captain Hoodie’s troops would represent the AFC, but the Steelers used their balance to beat Baltimore and the Jets – who had made the Pats look ordinary a week before.

Perhaps the best thing about both teams is that each is committed to running the football. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers may have thrown for 3,922 yards during the regular season, but the Packers showed a strong devotion to the run during the playoffs, averaging 31.7 carries per game, which is actually more than the passes they attempted (by a shade). The Steelers, meanwhile, ran it 23 more times than they have passed it in wins over Baltimore and New York. This is yet another reason to love the two teams. In a league that has done everything it can to propagate the passing game, they realize that truly successful
teams can mash.

And play D. That has been the Steelers’ hallmark since Chuck Noll took over back in ’69 and continues under coordinator Dick LeBeau. Under Mike McCarthy, the Packers have become better and better on that side of the ball. After spending three seasons (2006-08) out of the top 10 in total defense, the Pack has been second and fifth the past two. A big reason for that is the 2009 decision to hire Dom Capers to run the defense. Since his arrival, not to mention the ’09 decision to draft human drain plug B.J. Raji and all-everything LB Clay Matthews with the team’s two first-round picks, the Packers have been much better.

Were this game not surrounded by a full hour of commercial and promotional folderol it might be a quick one, as two teams devoted to working the clock slug it out. Instead, when Fox’s lead-in to a “very special episode” of Glee concludes, it will likely have dragged on for four hours. When it’s finally over, and the Lombardi Trophy (please, NFL, don’t redesign it like you did the conference hardware) is awarded, Pittsburgh will have grabbed its seventh Super Bowl title. The Steelers are a little better on D, will run the ball with more success, and Roethlisberger will – as usual – make a couple big plays down the stretch. Pittsburgh 24, Green Bay 20. (Post-season record against the spread: 7-3.)

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Say what you want about hockey’s goon factor, but you can’t deny the entertainment value of Thursday’s Stars-Bruins game, which featured three fights in the first four seconds (that’s right) of play…Shame on CBS College Sports for making deposed Michigan football coach Rich Ro-riguez (no D) interview his successor, Brady Hoke, on signing day. Ro-riguez deserved to get the gate in Ann Arbor, but he didn’t have to endure the session with Hoke. What’s next, video of his most recent colonoscopy?...There are reports of match fixing, gambling and gangsters in the world of sumo wrestling as the scandal ballooned this week. The scope of the investigation continues to widen, and the perps could face fat fines and hefty suspensions. Japanese TV networks are considering dropping live coverage of the March tournament and replacing it with competitive eating…Amidst huge statewide education budget cuts and continued concerns about whether some schools can even stay open, Allen HS is building a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium on campus. At least the taxpayers’ money isn’t being wasted on something frivolous, like a new chem lab, or the people would be pretty steamed.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? When El Hombre received an e-mail Wednesday morning from an Airtight Source telling him the Eagles were about to hire a defensive coordinator who had never coached D in the NFL before, he couldn’t believe it. Neither could the two league execs he asked whether that made any sense. But, sure enough, later that day, the Birds announced they were promoting offensive line coach Juan Castillo to DC. It’s a move that defies description and explanation. No matter how the Eagles want to rationalize this, it doesn’t smell right. If moving someone from a position coaching spot one side of the ball to a coordinator’s position on the other side made so much sense, how come it isn’t done more often? Or at all? The true story of this one won’t be out for a while, and El Hombre believes it has more to do with Castillo’s replacement, formerly-retired Howard Mudd, than it does with the team’s feeling that Castillo is the next Jim Johnson. Head coach Andy Reid has put his sizeable posterior on the line before, but this could be his biggest exposure yet. Should Castillo fail to do the job, it won’t be viewed as his fault, rather the responsibility of the man who put him in the wrong position. Reid may feel he’s bulletproof within the organization, but this move might tear away some of the Kevlar that surrounds him. We’ll wait and see, out of respect to Castillo, but a failure could topple Reid’s regime.

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AND ANOTHER THING: This is El Hombre’s 300th effort, and the past six-plus years have been a fun ride – to where, nobody really knows. What began as a means of clearing the opinions out of a cluttered mind has turned into something with (limited) national appeal and a community of readers/responders that is edifying. EH promises the next 300 missives will be filled with the same passion, strident beliefs, whimsy and, yes, anger – not to mention plenty of Animal House references – that the previous collection was. If you like what you’re seeing, you can find more by checking out @DailyHombre on Twitter. Thanks for reading.