Are you ready for some damn football? You're damn right Zembla is. The NFL has returned. It's the nation's most popular professional sport, just ahead of baseball and probably NASCAR. It seems like, just as in presidential elections, the American South is most important in terms of popularity and success. Football is the one professional sport where players' contracts aren't guaranteed, where Pro Bowl players are forced to renegotiate their contracts weeks before the season begins to avoid outright release, where the union has little power, and where suspected drug dealers and admitted racists like Bill Romanowski can end a teammate's season with a haymaker punch and receive nothing more than a one-practice suspension. The NFL has no loyalty to players, coaches, or fans. At its core, it's an attractive, alcoholic, womanizing playboy in league form, with franchises skipping town on a whim, extracting money for stadiums, and suing their home counties for millions of dollars while the always-forgiving, co-dependent fans forgive everything.
The NFL prides itself as being the top league, though an objective look at its stability reveals problems. Fans and the media are always bemoaning the problems of baseball, while extolling the virtues of pro football. What goes unnoticed, in all of the plaudits about financial health and parity, is how the NFL stacks up. Baseball has had no teams change cities since 1970; the NFL has had six teams relocate since then, with the Raiders moving twice. Currently, fully half of the teams in the National League have a shot at the playoffs; even with a much higher percentage of teams making the playoffs, the NFL rarely has so many contenders with a month to go. Player movement between franchises is significantly higher in the NFL than in any other sport. Also, the whole idea of "parity," that any given team can win any given Sunday begs the question of what it means to be a good team, in general. Personally, I feel that the triumph of the mediocre New England Patriots in the 2002 Super Bowl mostly means that winning the Super Bowl simply does not mean as much as it used to.
That being said, I love the NFL, partially because it infuriates me so. I also fully realize I have still not adjusted to the demise of the 49er dynasty. Growing up, the 49ers were good every single year, without fail. A 10-6 season was a disappointment. For many of my formative years, the 49ers started Joe Montana, and had Steve Young, likely one of the best five quarterbacks in the league, earning millions of dollars on the bench, just in case of emergency. Now, in the wake of the owner's racketeering conviction, and the advent of the salary cap, the once-proud 49ers are reduced to the level of peon teams like the Rams and Eagles. It's a shame.
The game is still very entertaining, and I follow it voraciously. Last year, I watched a majority of the Monday Night Football telecasts, altered last year with the addition of John Madden to the broadcast team. Madden is getting older, and in my opinion, clearly losing his mind. He will talk at length, lovingly, obsessively, about the bodies of 300-pound lineman. These monologues with continue throughout several plays, as embattled play-by-play partner Al Michaels vainly attempts to describe the action on the field. He is obsessed with an ABC gimmick called the "horse trailer"; a horse trailer that accompanies Madden and the MNF team (along with Madden's enormous RV, the "Madden Cruiser") to every game. At the end of each game, Madden selects the best players, whose picture is displayed on the side of the horse trailer. Of course, the mentally ill Madden rarely chooses just one player, so that the horse trailer is often bedecked with four or five players from any single contest.
The surreal highlight of the season, however, came in the pre-Thanksgiving telecast, when ABC sent a "turducken" into the announcers' booth. A "turducken" is a turkey, stuffed with a chicken, which has itself been stuffed with a duck. It's a fairly disgusting amalgamation of poultry, but it's yet another Madden obsession which the ABC crew not only tolerates, but encourages. In the middle of this game, while important football plays were occurring, ABC and Madden took a break to explain the mechanics and origin of the turducken, culminating in Madden forcibly dissecting the turducken with his bare, bloated hands. Al Michaels had to leave the booth. Shit, I had to leave the room. Let it be known: John Madden has lost his mind.
Besides the turducken and the horse trailer, the one thing that I wish would disappear from the NFL is the fake reverse. In every single NFL game I viewed last year, there was at least one play in which the quarterback dropped back, faked a handoff to the running back, who then, without the ball, faked another handoff to a circling wide receiver. In all this deception, I never saw this trick play result in substantial gains, partly because two of the team's players were busy horsing around in the backfield, partly because the best deep pass threat was invariably pretending to take an imaginary handoff, but mainly because, every team in the league did a fake reverse every single week. Actual trick plays are fun, but NFL teams are copycats. Enough of the fake reverse, I plead!
The local squad, the aforementioned 49ers, faces an interesting season. Gone is former coach Steve Mariucci, fired due to a regime change in ownership and his conservative coaching style. The 49ers always tried to run the ball a lot, controlling the ball and the clock, but never seemed to put teams away, or play especially aggressively. This was most notable in the team's second-round playoff game against the eventual champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 49ers, down by multiple touchdowns nearing halftime, chose to run out the clock rather than attempt a score, with a minute remaining and two timeouts. While Mariucci was successful, the 49ers seemed to play at their best when scrambling for comebacks, throwing passes willy-nilly and clawing at victory, as in their comeback victory against the New York Giants the previous week. Perhaps the new coach will have more of a foot-on-the-throat mentality.
This season also might mark the final campaign of superstar wide receiver and Zembla favorite, Terrell Owens. Owens has always been an enigmatic player, by far the finest of the 49ers' post-championship era, which admittedly is like being the best cast member on "Star Trek: Enterprise", or penning #1 hits for the Jefferson Starship. It is not Owens' fault that the team did not rise to his level of play; he has generally been an unbelievably clutch player, carrying the team to their fantastic playoff win last season with his tough pass-catching and borderline-insane sideline encouragement. He also caught, versus double coverage, the last-second, game-winning, playoff-advancing touchdown pass back in 1999, versus the Green Bay Packers. He is the most difficult receiver in the league to tackle, routinely knocking down defenders and grabbing extra yardage.
Still, Owens has his weaknesses. His signature play last season involved catching a touchdown pass against the Seattle Seahawks, then removing a pen from his sock, singing the ball, and handing it to a fan. This would have been a really stylish move, had he given the ball to a kid, or some loyal 49er fan behind the end zone. Instead, he gave it to his financial advisor. Not cool. Also, simply by being a wide receiver, Owens is part of a bizarre fraternity of effeminate one-upsmanship. Jerry Rice used to write "Flash 80" on a towels hanging above his backside. Receivers routinely wear the tightest uniforms, the most ridiculous hairstyles, the most elaborate on-field fanny packs, and engage in the most slap-fighting, trash-talking, and fake injuries worthy of an Argentinian soccer player. Owens is amazing, Owens is a superstar, but Owens is still a fancy-pants wideout, so all adulation and praise is tempered slightly.
The 49ers have begun the season with a 42-point thrashing of the Chicago Bears, all might be good in the NFL world. If you're a friend of mine, rowdy or not, feel free to come over one of these night, provided that you, too, are ready for some damn football.