Football on the radio

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Many people romanticize baseball on the radio. Football is something else entirely. On Sunday, while I was driving home from the Big Red Machine reunion in Cincinnati, I listened to the entire Kansas City Chiefs-New Orleans Saints game on my brand new "Best of Sirius" radio package. I cannot even remember the last time I listened to an entire NFL game on the radio. It was probably when I was a kid listening to the Cleveland Browns game through radio static. Bernie Kosar, when he was young, could throw with accuracy through static. Paul McDonald ... not so much.

The Sirius package, though, comes in clear as an air horn, and listening for three hours reminded me there are forgotten joys to football on the radio. Sure, everyone understands football, at its core, is a television game. Or more to the point, it's a visual game, much more than any other American sport. And by visual I mean when you see even a single NFL play, you are not really seeing it. No, you need to see it from a second angle, a third angle, a fourth and fifth sometime, to really understand it, to see who missed the block, who was open but did not get picked up by the quarterbacks, who fell for the play-action and as such opened up the middle zone, who held the receiver after getting beat, who jumped into the hole too tentatively, who did not get both feet in bounds, on and on and on and on. There is a reason that coaches in football, unlike the coaches in any other sport I know, talk afterward about needing to see the film before they can fully discuss the events. They have no idea what happened. They need to see it on TV.

After a while, as a football viewer, you come to rely on replays, even when you're at the game and watching live. In fact, there are few things more infuriating as a fan than watching a play and noticing something (it looked like he fumbled at the end; it looked like he might not have caught the ball; it looked like the receiver set a pick) and them not showing the replay. In football, replays are much more important than what you see live.

And that's different. Baseball replays can come in handy -- sometimes replays clarify a close play or finalize a fair/foul ball or show you just how badly a pitcher missed his spot on the home run -- but I don't think it's the same thing. In baseball, replays simply validate what you saw or, in rare cases, contradict what you saw. But football, because it involves 22 men, all with their own unique jobs on every play, every replay tells a whole new story, it's like watching a whole new play.

And so I have grown used to that football-watching rhythm, grown used to seeing a play and then immediately looking up at the television to see what actually happened. I have grown used to appreciating the specifics of football, the smallest things, to observe where the Steelers blitzes are coming from, two see how Bill Belichick's defense drops backs, to marvel at how Tony Gonzalez gets off the line of scrimmage, to groan as a safety jumps a short crossing route while a receiver runs open behind them, to watch a tackle lunge helplessly at a defensive end after getting beat off the snap.

Football on the radio strips the game down. It isn't about specifics anymore. It's all about the main thing. Baseball on radio opens up other worlds, there is time between pitches to tell stories, to relive history, to imagine trades, to get out of town scores, to throw out a little bit of trivia*. It's all very relaxed and friendly and slow.

*You surely know this bit, but it's still fun -- you can put together an entire team of players who won back-to-back MVP awards: Before Bonds, it was a perfect team of nine (assuming you could put Murphy in left field):

1B: Jimmie Foxx (1932-33), Frank Thomas (1993-94)2B: Joe Morgan (1975-76)SS: Ernie Banks (1958-59)3B: Mike Schmidt (1980-81)CF: Dale Murphy (1982-83), Mickey Mantle (1956-57)LF: Barry Bonds (1992-93, 2001-04)RF: Roger Maris (1960-61)C: Yogi Berra (1954-55)P: Hal Newhouser (1944-45)

In football on radio, the exact opposite is true, it's all football in the moment -- there isn't time for anything else.* One play piles on top of another, faster and faster, and while football itself may be, as the old line goes, five seconds of action followed by 30 seconds of meetings, on the radio you need those 30 seconds just to explain what the heck happened.

*OK, so if I write, "This has got to be the alley-oop, there isn't time for anything else" -- you are probably enough of an NFL Films geek to appreciate the line. It comes from an old film when the old 49ers quarterback had to throw a high pass to receiver R.C. Owens. I love that line and use it in conversation with my buddy Vackie all the time. In fact, Vackie and I have about 250 different lines that come from various snippets of pop culture life and we use these lines constantly, and we constantly crack ourselves up with them, and we drive our wives absolutely up the wall. These lines include:

"Champagne -- champagne cocktails.""You just went down a notch in my, in my book.""I said they didn't take me. And he said, that's good.""What did you want me to do, catch it and rehabilitate it?""This song is not a rebel song.""How come you don't tell that nice girl you love her.""Two and two to Harvey Kuenn.""You see this watch? You see this watch? This watch costs more than your car.""They're killing me, Whitey.""It's a lovely marriage of words and music.""How can I be the man when you're the man?""Good shot. I'm a good shot.""Oh bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America.""My offer is this. Nothing.""Down goes Frazier.""There's a gleam, men. There's a gleam.""And don't you just love that Jack Ruby got into the garage."

I suspect all friendships have lines like those (and I know you can place them all; if not, see below*). I figure good friends don't even have conversations anymore -- we just repeat lines over and over to each other, and this is somehow supposed to represent a conversation. Whenever my wife asks, "So you talked to Vackie, how's he doing?" I realize that I have no idea, technically speaking, how he's doing. But we did relieve that moment when Hawkeye ordered ribs from "Adam's Ribs" in Chicago.

So, anyway, listening to the Kansas City Chiefs on the radio clarified something I already knew but had never quite seen from the radio angle: Wow, they stink. It's one thing to watch the Chiefs lose in person, to see the various close calls, to appreciate the small improvements, to see the individuals in action and appreciate how slight the difference is between a successful play and an unsuccessful one, to view things sympathetically through the eyes of coaches who are working hard.

On the radio, it's so much plainer. The Chiefs defensive line gets no pressure on the quarterback. The Chiefs offensive line can't block well enough to get a third and 1. The Chiefs defensive line gets no pressure on the quarterback. The Chiefs receivers don't get open. The Chiefs special teams are awful. Chiefs coach Herm Edwards punted on fourth and a long one (or a short two, depending on if your an optimist/pessimist) in the fourth quarter from inside New Orleans territory -- now, seriously, there is absolutely no reasonable reasoning for that.

Also the Chiefs get no pressure on the quarterback.

Let's focus on that for lack of pressure for a minute. You want a statistic that will blow your mind? Here goes: The Kansas City Chiefs have played 10 games. They have six sacks. That would be as a team. Six sacks. There are 19 individual players in the NFL with six sacks or more. The Chiefs are on pace for 10 sacks all season, and that's actually rounding up.

Fewest sacks for teams since 19691. Baltimore Colts, 1982 (9-game season), 112. Buffalo Bulls, 1982 (9-game season), 123. Baltimore Colts, 1981, 134. New England Patriots, 1972 (14-game season), 145. New York Jets, 1976 (14-game season), 166. Los Angeles Rams, 1991, 177. Atlanta Falcons, 1987 (15-game season), 178. Philadelphia Eagles, 1975 (14-game season), 17(tie) Buffalo Bills, 1977 (14-game season), 17(tie), New Orleans Saints, 1970, 17

So as you can see, this year's Chiefs team has a chance to be the least intimidating defense ever. And by quite a lot. And while that kind of historic ineptitude is hard to watch on television or in person, it's absolutely staggering on the radio. Every single time the quarterback drops back, you hear the announcer -- in this case, the very informative Mitch Holthus -- say, "Brees is back. He's looking. He's flushed from the pocked, and he's looking. He's still looking. He's going to run, no, he's still looking, still looking and he throws, complete for a first down." It's horrifying. It's torturous. It's like breaking up with your girlfriend/boyfriend, only in slow motion.

And it's just plain, it's stark, the voice on the radio will not negotiate. In person, on television, you might see that a defensive lineman got held, or you might feel a little bit of the tension, but on the radio that defensive line is just a dead battery. On the radio it feels like Drew Brees could stand back there for one hundred years and never be touched. On the radio you realize that a defensive line with two first-round picks, one second-rounder and one third-rounder and a linebacking corps with a first-round pick and a former Pro Bowler is playing some of the worst football in the history of mankind. On the radio there are no reasonable excuses. Everyone involved deserves to be fired.

There are other things you get listening to football the radio, such as the "Real Men of Genius" commercials which, I sense, may have run their course. There is also an astonishing Pizza Hut commercial where, if I got the plot right, a man is taking his wife out for dinner. And she says, "Wow, this is great, we never go out." She actually says this. And then she says, "Hey, why are we back home, did you forget something?" And he says, "Nope, surprise!" And it turns out that instead of going out, he has invited some people over to have Pizza Hut Pizza at the house. And this woman in the commercial, apparently, is supposed to be thrilled by this development.

I find this to be the single least believable commercial in the history of the world, and let's face it, there have been some remarkably unbelievable commercials through the years. I keep waiting for the follow-up commercial where the couple gets divorced and she gets the house and the car but he gets the leftover pizza. I mean, is anybody at Pizza Hut married? Even the actress in the commercial should have perked up and said, "Um, listen, um, I know we're trying to sell this barely edible pizza and all, but you know, there isn't a single woman alive who would be happy to lose a night out so they could eat Pizza Hut with all of her husband's jerky friends. Can we just shift the theme a little bit?"

When the game ended and the Chiefs had lost again, I turned to the Pittsburgh-San Diego game and listened to the Steelers broadcast for a while. I really started to enjoy the rhythm of radio football. Plus those Steelers guys are very entertaining, though half the fun was just listening to people with Pittsburgh accents talk for three hours. Also, I got to hear what a sack sounds like.

*The answers to this week's Vackie Conversation lines:

1. "Champagne -- champagne cocktails."-- That's from Godfather II and the brilliant and drunk Frankie Pentangeli. Don't worry about anything Frankie Five-Angels.

2. "You just went down a notch in my, in my book."-- That's not the best line in Diner, far from it, but for some reasons that's the one we always use, the line when Boogie chooses Elvis Presley.

3. "I said they didn't take me. And he said, that's good."-- You guys got this one even though I tried to punctuate it in a tricky way. That's Springsteen, of course, and his introduction to The River on the live boxed set. The army didn't take him. And his hard-nosed father said that's good.

3. "What did you want me to do, catch it and rehabilitate it?"-- This is from Annie Hall, after Woody Allen kills a spider and Diane Keaton starts crying.

4. "This song is not a rebel song."-- This song is Sunday Bloody Sunday.

5. "How come you don't tell that nice girl you love her."-- From the original Godfather, that's Clemenza -- "I love you with all-a my heart. If I don't see you again soon, I'm-a-gonna die."

6. "Two and two to Harvey Kuenn."-- That's Vin Scully for Koufax's perfect game: "Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away. Sandy into his windup, here's the pitch, swung on and missed. A perfect game!" And then Scully was silent for 38 seconds.

7. "You see this watch? You see this watch? This watch costs more than your car."-- That's from Alec Baldwin's seminal scene in Glengarry Glen Ross. We actually use numerous lines from that soliloquy including "coffee is for closers," "it takes brass balls," and "ABC, always, be, closing."

8. "They're killing me, Whitey."-- That is former NFL coach Lou Saban shouting to assistant Whitey Dovell, one of many classic NFL Films moments.

9. "It's a lovely marriage of words and music."-- That is indeed a Frank Sinatra preamble before Send In The Clowns Which he MURDERS by the way. I mean it's a lousy song to begin with, but something about that song brought out the worst of Ol' Blue Eyes. I feel like I have to listen to Summer Wind about 20 times in a row just to get this clunker out of my head.

10. "How can I be the man when you're the man?"-- That was the constant cry of Scott Ferrall, a talk radio guy, who we first heard in Atlanta, like, years ago. I haven't heard him in many years so I don't know if his shtick still works, but it was funny then.

11. "Good shot. I'm a good shot."-- That's Joe Pesci from Goodfellas and that's as close as he gets to an apology after he kills a kid named Spider for making fun of him. Someone says, "He's dead." Pesci says, as an explainer, "Good shot. I'm a good shot."

12. "Oh bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America."-- That is Verne Lundquist in the seconds after Jackie Smith dropped a wide open touchdown pass in the Super Bowl."

13. "My offer is this. Nothing."-- This is Michael to the Senator Red Hot Poker in Godfather II and it was, as a couple of people pointed out, made famous again in The Freshman, which I think is actually quite a funny movie.

14. "Down goes Frazier."-- Cosell, of course. From the Foreman-Frazier fight.

15. "There's a gleam, men. There's a gleam."-- This is Marty Schottenheimer before a Cleveland Browns playoffs game. The thing I love about this is that Marty seemed to be building up to something -- sort of his own Saint Crispin's Day speech -- only it just fizzled out entirely. The entire speech, best I can tell, was this: "There is a gleam, men! There's a gleam. Go get the gleam. All right, let's go."

16. "And don't you just love that Jack Ruby got into the garage."-- This is from a classic bit from Dennis Miller long ago, when he wondered how local strip-joint owner Jack Ruby got into the garage where Lee Harvey Oswald was being transferred -- and with a gun no less. I probably laughed about as hard as I've ever laughed at anything when he said that. It just hit me exactly right.