Thanks, Josh, for teeing me up to discuss a long-simmering broadcasting pet peeve.
To narrate the Seahawks-Saints mismatch (oops!), NBC dispatched its B team, Tom Hammond and Mike Mayock. The duo normally calls Notre Dame football, which I imagine a few nonalumni still choose to watch. Hammond is a play-by-play lifer. His voice is neither memorable nor annoying, and his calls, whether on horseracing or ice dancing, are workmanlike and vanilla. Sometimes he even gets a little cheeky. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Hammond asked his booth-mate, Tracy Wilson, about the Aboriginal get-ups worn by a couple of Russian skaters: "Aside from looking ridiculous, does it affect the judges?" Snap!
During Saturday's game, Hammond could have asked Mayock about sounding ridiculous. Mayock is the sort of ex-jock analyst who, deliberately or not, seems to have forgotten what it was like to be a player. When a Saint or a Seahawk dropped a pass or missed a tackle—things that happen occasionally in football because, you know, it's a rather difficult sport—Mayock informed us that he "should have" caught the pass or made the tackle. Sometimes he helpfully added that the player "has gotta make that" catch, tackle, etc.
I know Mayock has his fans, particularly as a draft analyst on the NFL Network, but he suffers from an affliction common among ex-jock announcers not named Collinsworth: a belief that criticism equals analysis. Stuff happens impossibly fast on an NFL field, decisions are instinctual, mistakes occur. Former players know this because coaches yelled at them whenever they made one, after which they privately cursed out the coaches for failing to understand that perfection is an impossible standard. Jake Plummer, Nate's former quarterback and my former locker neighbor on the Denver Broncos, told me that he would never do color commentary because he didn't want to be "that asshole," ripping players for their missteps. Mike Mayock—who, as the 265th pick of the 1981 draft, might have missed a tackle or two in his day—ably filled that role on Saturday.
I'm certain that Mayock, the next afternoon, told whomever he was watching the games with that Eagles kicker David Akers should have made field goals of 34 and 41 yards because, a kicker has gotta make kicks in the playoffs. Akers' misses were indeed surprising, because he is a veteran and reliable and those weren't terribly long attempts. And they were disappointing, too, because they spoiled an otherwise perfect weekend, field-goal-wise. The sidewinders were a collective 12-for-12 in the other three games, and their perfection was most dramatic in the Colts-Jets game. Nick Folk's 32-yard game-winner as time expired gave the New Yorkers a 17-16 victory. (New York tabloid headline winner: the Post's "FOLK, YEAH" by a nose over the Daily News' "FOOT JOY," referencing Jets coach Rex Ryan's wife's reported foot-fetishism.) But I think Michaels and Collinsworth might have left disappointed, because Folk's kick robbed them of another opportunity to praise the Colts kicker, Adam Vinatieri, whose 50-yarder a few ticks earlier would have been the difference.
Vinatieri has become the go-to guy for media seeking to demonstrate that they like kickers—they really, really do. After his 50-yarder, Michaels and Collinsworth inducted Vinatieri into the Hall of Fame, recounting his clutch playoff kicks for his previous employer, the New England Patriots, and the fact that Jan Stenerud is the only full-time kicker in that institution. I've vented about this before, but just once I'd like to hear an announcer declare that the inclusion of one specialist kicker in Canton is a travesty, that kickers have played an outsize role in the history and the evolution of the sport, and that there are at least a half dozen modern kickers apart from Vinatieri who deserve enshrinement, from Pete Gogolak (first soccer-style kicker, whose defection from the upstart AFL to the establishment NFL sped the leagues' merger) to last-of-the-straight-on-kickers Mark Moseley (a season MVP!) to Gary Anderson, Morten Andersen, Jason Elam, and the other impossibly prolific and accurate kickers responsible for making field goals too easy for the league's liking.
The NFL's new playoff overtime rules, which alas weren't invoked this past weekend, are the latest reflection of the disdain for kicking. There's been plenty of analysis of the strategic challenges embedded in the new rules. What's been overlooked is the odd bias against one form of scoring over another. Under the new system, the game ends if the team that receives the kickoff to start overtime scores a touchdown. But if that team kicks a field goal, the other team gets a chance to score. (If the second team matches with a field goal, sudden death abides thereafter.) The NFL's stated goal was to lessen the advantage of winning the coin flip that decides which team gets the ball first in overtime; the receiving team has won about 60 percent of overtime games, and, between 1994 and 2009, it has done so by virtue of a first-possession field goal 27.8 percent of the time.
But that doesn't seem to me like an overwhelmingly high percentage. If the problem is the unfair advantage conferred by a coin toss, allowing the game to end on a first-possession touchdown—but not a field goal—doesn't solve that problem. To my mind, points are points, and any kind of scoring is difficult to create. If field goals were so easy, Michaels and Collinsworth wouldn't have been sculpting Vinatieri's likeness in vocal bronze. (You know what would be a really entertaining way to settle tie games? Field Goal Derby! As in soccer penalty kicks or hockey shootouts, each team picks five players to kick 30-yard field goals. Tied after five? More players take a turn, one per position. Tell me you wouldn't love to see Tom Brady shank one to lose a Super Bowl—take that, pretty boy.)
In nonkicking news: I noticed that the Saints' running back Julius Jones left the game with a head injury and didn't return, though you could see him pleading to go back in. Progress! I also heard Shannon Sharpe—at least I think it was Shannon Sharpe; there are an awful lot of gums flapping in that CBS studio—talk about a player getting "dinged." Regress! And thirdly, I noticed that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was concussed twice during the regular season, most recently a month ago, continues to wear the standard-issue NFL helmet, without the piece that extends down to cover the jaw line, which can transmit concussive forces to the brain. (Rodgers' helmet does apparently have more padding, though it's not clear how much that helps prevent concussions.) When I saw some of Rodgers' teammates whacking him on the noggin after a touchdown, I wanted them to stop.
When it's your turn, Nate, enlighten us on why the NFL continues to allow players to decide whatever kind of helmet they want to wear. In the meantime, Tom, what were your favorite shoulds from this first round of games? And don't screw up, because you gotta make the play.