So what if The Fray by the Bay, the Dec. 3 game between the once-defeated New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, turned out to be The Snore by the Shore. For me, the Niners' 7-3 win was two hours and 58 minutes of enlightenment. Curious to learn how much of an NFL telecast is devoted to actual play—those seconds that elapse after the ball is snapped (or kicked off) and before the whistle blows—I perched in front of the tube, stopwatch in hand.
The discoveries piled up quickly. Sitting through the minute-long introduction to Monday Night Football—Hank Williams Jr. braying about all his rowdy friends, a montage of bone-crushing hits and spikes (note to executive producer Geoffrey Mason: More spikes, please; they're why I tune into NFL games, for the spikes!), Bill Cosby, Ronnie Lott, Mark Breland, and Jim Burt proclaiming their readiness for the big tilt, and the obligatory shot of a woman with a four-star caboose sashaying away from the camera—I learned that when it cares to, ABC can make 60 seconds feel like a long, clock-eating drive.
Of the telecast's 178 minutes—a quickie, by NFL standards—the total action time was 12 minutes. (I use the word "action" loosely, seeing as how New York coach Bill Parcells' idea of imaginative play-calling was to have Phil Simms pitch the ball to O.J. Anderson instead of handing it off to him.)
Of the 122 plays from scrimmage:
December 24, 1990
The 57 rushing attempts took an average of 4.5 seconds.
The 26 completed passes averaged 4.9 seconds. The game's sole touchdown, a Joe Montana-to-John Taylor pass, lasted 5.3 seconds.
The 39 incomplete passes (including four sacks) averaged 4.4 seconds.
The 16 punts averaged 9.1 seconds. The brutal first half turned in by Giants punter and former Maria Maples escort Sean Landeta—not much hang time on his kicks—brought the average down.
The four kickoffs averaged 8.5 seconds.
Judging when a ball passes through the goal posts is a subjective business, but it appeared that San Francisco's extra point consumed 2.1 seconds, while the Giants' 20-yard field goal, 2.2. The Niners also took 2.0 seconds off the clock in missing a field goal.
That left ABC with 166 minutes to fill. Here's how the network filled a good chunk of that time:
Blimp-cam: 13 shots totaling three minutes. 57 seconds.
Replays of the evening's TD: six of them, totaling 55.0 seconds.
Close-ups of coaches. Parcells got six minutes, 38 seconds to 49er coach George Seifert's three minutes even. Seifert, a stoic, is not as telegenic as Parcells, whose expressions ranged from worried to disgusted to nauseated. With his team facing fourth-and-goal from the nine in the fourth quarter, Parcells looked as if he had just sampled some new carp-flavored variety of Ultra Slim-fast.
The imbroglio between Simms and Niner safety Ronnie Lott: 67 seconds. The two had words toward the end of the fourth quarter, and again after the game. Replays showed that when they began jawing, Simms buttoned his chin strap, proving again that he is one of the league's smartest quarterbacks.
The odd commercial: I counted 99, which gave the telecast an 11-to-9 play-to-plug ratio. Of these 42 minutes and 36 seconds of ads, ABC was its own best customer with 27 pleas—totaling five minutes, 42 seconds—to tune into its various programs. ABCs self-promotions ranged from seven reminders to watch next Monday night's game, to one pitch apiece for Sunday night's Columbo Goes to College and that night's Night-line, which promised to hurl its investigative machinery into a discussion of the burning issue of Madonna's racy new skin flick/music video, Justify My Love.
It would have been more interesting to hear ad execs justifying their selection of actors for the telecast's 10-plus minutes of car commercials. The ads—for Cadillac, Dodge, Ford, Nissan, Pontiac and Toyota—featured a total of 33 drivers and spokespersons, exactly four of whom were black, and two of them played a married couple in one commercial, for Dodge.
Or to hear the creators of the lour beer spots explain why they chose to depict beer as being a ticket to some fantasy dimension where snow falls during summer, taut-fleshed young people shoot come-hither looks your way, and nobody arrives late to work with a hangover. The one that spoke to me, the one that got up in my face, Lott-like, was Bud Dry's. It posed a series of rhetorical questions, only to answer them with the anti-intellectual dictum "Why ask why?" I started wondering what I was doing—and why—sitting up until midnight, right thumb aching from clicking the damned stopwatch, watching Anderson run off tackle for the umpteenth time. Why ask why? The answer came later, when I found out how much football one gets for one's three-hour investment. I now know what to do next time: chuck the stopwatch and curl up with a good book.