Patrick Smith


  • Also, football the sport vs. football the entertainment product when it comes to officiating, how the Super Bowl got its name, why Antonio Brown wouldn’t seem to be going anywhere, bad halftime performances, and a new Craig T. Nelson vehicle I’ve been working on. Plus, musical guest: Superchunk!
By Gary Gramling
February 03, 2019

1. Last year, I wrote about how you’ll all miss the Patriots when they’re gone, because the only thing better than rooting for the team you love in the Super Bowl is rooting against the team you hate.

I was wrong. Not about missing them—because you would. But what I realized, and what you should realize, is that the Patriots never going to go away. This Brady/Belichick run will outlast you, your children and your children’s children.

Your final moments on this plane of existence will be watching a 112-year-old Bill Belichick and an 87-year-old Tom Brady celebrating their 44th Super Bowl appearance in a 48-year span. And then you will ascend to the heavens. Or descend to that other place. (You know, because of all that stuff you did—I think you know they can’t look the other way on that.) And in that other place, you’ll be condemned to eternity in a room with Julian Edelman, holding a pitchfork in one hand and an iPhone in the other. An iPhone on which he is forever frantically scrolling through social media looking for slights against the Patriots, intermittently shouting things like, @TURDBUTT69 TWEETED “TOM BRADY IS JUST A GAME MANAGER.” BET AGAINST US! (And the pitchfork? Well, that’s for poking you right in the tush every once in a while. So you’re not going to like that one bit either.)

The sooner you accept this reality, the sooner you will find peace.

2a. Super Bowls typically feature good coaching matchups because good coaches tend to make the Super Bowl. And then they have an extra week to prepare for the Super Bowl. This year’s coaching matchup provides a little more juice with the Bill Belichick and Sean McVay, the best coach in football and possibly the heir apparent to that title.

Few teams self-scout better than the Patriots and Rams, and both sides are going to run out wrinkles they’ve never put on tape before. I lean toward the Patriots having an edge because of the fact that they can take on more identities on offense, and I’m not sure what Wade Phillips can dial up with a defense that’s short on edge rushers and doesn’t cover well, especially up the middle (as in, the guys who will have to match up with Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and James White).

2b. Did you know that Belichick and McVay do not have the same birthday? Belichick is 66 and McVay is 33, and a lot of people on the internet have pointed that out over the course of the past two weeks.

It might seem like a big difference at first glance, but consider this: When McVay was in kindergarten, he and Belichick had the same number of career wins as an NFL head coach. And when Belichick is 140 years old, McVay will be 107 years old, which doesn’t sound like a very big age gap at all. And when McVay was born, Belichick wasn’t even old enough to be elected President of the United States.

However, if you’d like to know what it would be like if a football coach were President of the United States, petition the networks to green-light my new pilot: “Coach-mander-in-Chief.” Starring the incomparable Craig T. Nelson, it’s a sequel to the Coach series, imagining a world in which former Minnesota State head coach Hayden Fox* has ascended to become the leader of the free world. While it adheres strictly to the Coach canon, it is not a sitcom but rather a terrifying look into a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future for our nation. (In the first episode, Dauber gets eaten by a velociraptor.)

*—I want to be clear on this: I remembered the name of Craig T. Nelson’s character in Coach without looking it up.

3. Back in October, I remember thinking that having to rely on an undrafted rookie in the secondary would ultimately cost the Patriots come playoff time. Yet, here we are, on Super Bowl Sunday, and J.C. Jackson has emerged as a rising star in New England, outplaying the former undrafted free agent-turned-rising star Malcolm Butler.

Jackson has impressed the coaching staff so much that he drew Travis Kelce as his assignment in the AFC title game. He held his own in the first half before taking a loss, but that’s how it would have gone for pretty much any young quarterback against Kelce. The fact that the staff was willing to put Jackson in that position says a lot about how highly they think of him.

Improved secondary play seems to be a big difference this year under Brian Flores. The Patriots are finding the right matchups, and changing them up when they sour. On Sunday, they’ll be dealing with the Rams’ unique weapons. Unlike a year ago, when the Malcolm Butler benching left them painfully thin, they have the players to do so. (My guess is Stephon Gilmore on Robert Woods, Jason McCourty on Josh Reynolds and a Jackson-plus-safety double on Brandin Cooks.) The play of the secondary is what could be the difference between this Super Bowl and last.

4. Everyone is going to have a keen eye on the officiating after the unfortunate finish to the NFC title game (a result of the NFL’s years-long insistence on using the latest video and communication technology as, foremost, an excuse for a Microsoft Surface product plug and another commercial break).

The no-call in New Orleans was a result of the conflict between “football the sport” and “football the entertainment product” spiraling out of control. Officials tend to “let them play” in the playoffs because literal enforcement of the rulebook would lead to an unwatchable game. If Super Bowl LIII features 40 flags, it will be a greater embarrassment than any single missed call could ever be.

I’d be curious to see what happens when player safety comes into the equation. Because, as a practical matter, should player safety rules be enforced in-game? A team is penalized for doing something that gives them an unfair advantage. An offensive lineman starting the play early has gained an advantage if it’s uncalled. A defensive back holding a receiver has gained an unfair advantage if it’s uncalled. Even a pass-rusher who hits a quarterback well after the ball is released has gained an unfair advantage because of the effects cumulative hits can have on a quarterback. Ditto hits to defenseless receivers.

But has, for instance, a player who lowers his helmet and makes contact with the ballcarrier gained an advantage within the game itself? Or has a player who makes mild contact with the quarterback above or below the strike zone as the ball is released done something that, if unpunished, benefits his team in that game?

I often wonder if player-safety rules should be enforced only via fines and suspensions. Picture this hypothetical scenario, if you will (and you will, because I already wrote it): On Sunday, the Patriots trail 28-23 with two seconds left on the clock and the ball at the Rams’ 1-yard line. Brady hands to the up back, 250-pound fullback James Develin. Rams linebacker Mark Barron fills hard and both players try to go low, with the forehead of Barron’s helmet contacting Develin’s upper chest. Barron holds up and Develin goes down short of the goal line with no time left on the clock. It’s a violation of the rulebook and a dangerous play by Barron, but would America be comfortable with the Patriots drawing a penalty and therefore another chance on the goal line? And does it do more to legislate a dangerous play out of the game than a fine/suspension for Barron would?

The union would have to be involved in determining off-field punishments, but the league is already fining players for such hits. It seems there could be a way to try to legislate dangerous plays out of the game while doing no harm to the fairness of the game or the entertainment product.

5. We at Football Things like to arm you with little factoids you can share at your Super Bowl party, because even if how others perceive you isn’t important to you, it’s important to us. Here’s a conversation starter to break out on Sunday: “Hey, do you know how the Super Bowl got its name?”

As the story goes, one day in the mid-1960s pro football pioneer and Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt was at a park watching his kids play with a toy—the “Super Ball,” as it was.

Just then, a pickpocket lifted his wallet. He grabbed the nearest thing he could—in this case, a soup bowl half-filled with Panera turkey chili—and smashed it over the would-be robber’s head, knocking him out cold. Hunt then put on his large 1960s eyeglasses and remarked, despite no one being within ear shot, “You might call that a… ‘Super Bowl.’” And then nearby in the park, street-performing Pete Townshend wind-milled a power chord while Roger Daltrey unleashed a guttural scream.

A frantic Hunt immediately called Pete Rozelle and asked, “Commissioner, do you have the number for a young Jerry Bruckheimer? I have an amazing idea for a recurring cold open for a hackneyed procedural.” To which Rozelle replied, “No, but as long as I have you on the phone, remember a couple weeks ago when we were throwing around ‘Super Bowl’ as the new name of the AFL-NFL championship game during that conference call? I hope you’re cool with it, because we already started mass-producing beer koozies and beanie babies and shot glasses with that branding.” And he was cool with it.

So if you want to seem mildly interesting at your Super Bowl party, share that story, verbatim, with a stranger.

6. “I’m thankful to be part of something so great, something that’s bigger than me. I’ll tell my grandkids about being a Steeler someday. I was sitting there in the draft, no idea where I was going. I could have gone to some sorry team. But I get to come here, with all this tradition.”
—Steelers then-rookie Antonio Brown, to Peter King, after his 58-yard catch on a third-and-19 helped propel the Steelers to a playoff win over Baltimore in January 2011

Time changes people, things grow stale, and eight years later we have Brown potentially thrashing and tweeting his way out of Pittsburgh. But it’s tough to figure how the Steelers could get a return that would satisfy them. They have to eat $21 million in dead cap if they deal him this offseason, so the compensation would have to be even more significant than it would be if they were simply shipping out their No. 1 receiver. But how steep a price is anyone going to pay for Brown? If you’re a contender, the social media content would give you pause. If you’re building up, the age (31 when training camps open) would give you pause. If you’re somewhere in between, do you want to pay top dollar in draft capital and cap space ($40 million over the next two years) for a 31-year-old receiver?

Brown is a game-changing talent and should be for the next couple years. His game is built partly on speed, which will decline in his 30s. But two defensive backs Andy Benoit and I interviewed for offseason podcasts independently cited the 5' 10" Brown as one of the best contested-catch receivers in the league. That’s because of all the subtle—let’s call it “handwork”—he does just before the ball arrives. Go back and watch his conference semifinal performance against the Jaguars last year. Brown was a stud despite seeming to be running at about 60% because of his calf injury, and it was due to his contested-catch ability.

It only takes one team to realize that and be willing to take on the cap hit and unique persona Brown brings. But it seems unlikely that such a team exists.

7. Maroon 5 was indeed an uninspiring pick for the halftime show, though being an uninspiring, harmless musical act seems to be the formula for commercial success in that industry, the kind of commercial success that lands you the Super Bowl halftime show. (Personally, I’m indifferent to the band, though “Moves Like Jagger” has a soft spot in my heart because I became a father around the height of the song’s popularity and penned the delightful parody, “Poos Like Jagger,” as our house’s diaper-change anthem.)

No matter what happens on Sunday evening when they take the stage, Maroon 5 did catch a break earlier this month when Imagine Dragons set the bar for championship game halftime performances somewhere in the vicinity of the Earth’s crust during the college football championship. I was only vaguely familiar with Imagine Dragons, who seem to be big with the tweens and score a lot of commercials and whatnot. I always assumed it was maybe two guys, both doing vocals. When they took the stage that night and there were four dudes with instruments, it didn’t add up.

I know very little of their catalog, so perhaps there are songs that are less plodding and more… challenging. But in that 15-minute set, the three members on instruments played a combined total of 37 notes—I counted. I’m all for job creation, but that’s a serious lack of efficiency. I’m pretty sure they only needed one guy to provide the backing music. And not one-man band style. If you set the instruments up on different parts of the stage, I think someone could have run around from instrument to instrument and played every note.

Live music can be a powerful thing as long as there’s actual music being played. Maybe Maroon 5 will have that going for them.

8. I’m quite proud of this, so I’ll just nakedly plug it right here: I’ve been wanting to mock “What Time Is the Super Bowl?” for years by interviewing a futurist and posing the question as if it was something to be predicted. But I never had time to pull it together, mostly because I’d forget about it until 20 minutes before the Super Bowl kicked off.

So in order to make sure it was on my radar, I told my boss, Mark Mravic, about what I was going to do. He recommended theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, author of The Order of Time. I bought the hardcover book and the audio book (read by the dreamy Benedict Cumberbatch) in order to help my feeble brain follow along, and I was absolutely enraptured. The book as a whole is mind-blowing, and the final chapter is so beautiful that, as I sat in my driveway listening/reading and eating Wendy’s chicken fingers on a Saturday night, I was openly weeping. I emailed Dr. Rovelli expecting I’d probably not hear back… until three days later, when he emailed in the wee hours of a Monday morning. Since he’s overseas, I pulled an all-nighter emailing back and forth with him—a lot of it explaining American football. He was enthusiastic and kind and very funny, and as I told him when we were done, my LinkedIn page now includes “taught Carlo Rovelli everything he knows (...about American football).” This job is always easy, and sometimes it’s also really cool.

With that, I give you Part I of a three-part trilogy: “What Time Is the Super Bowl?”

9. And now we make our final lurch toward the end of another season of Football Things. To everyone who stopped by this corner of the internet for people who like football and also memorized the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, I am genuinely thankful and deeply confused as to why you kept coming here. But mostly I’m thankful.

It’s been a good year, especially now that I’ve found a spot for that Craig T. Nelson bit. It will be back to solely podcasting and editing for me as Football Things goes into its hyperbaric chamber until September (well, except for draft weekend).

As for what the offseason holds: I’m going to sleep for 14-16 hours a night next week, I got Mario Kart as an end-of-season present for my kids… I hope to pet a saluki at some point because they’re fascinating animals, but I also feel like there’s a whole system in place to prevent someone like me from getting anywhere near a dog as nice and fancy as a saluki. And, well, hopefully I’ll be physically and mentally capable of doing this column again next year. Thanks for reading to the end. Here’s a band I like…

10. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Superchunk!

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