The Hot Corner
Issue   |   Tue, 02/06/2018 - 22:12

On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles toppled the New England Patriots, fending off the reigning champions and grabbing hold of the city’s first Super Bowl championship. Those who feared they would never escape the crippling imprisonment of the Patriots’ dynasty walked away from the Super Bowl like Andy Dufresne emerging from the sewer, arms flung skyward in the falling rain. And Eagles fans kicked off a “celebration” from which the city of Philadelphia may never recover.

Football season is now over, and the sport goes into hibernation until the fall (or June, for anyone who follows the Canadian Football League). Millions of Americans awoke Monday morning, many having assaulted their digestive systems the previous night, and headed to work to face seven months without their country’s near-pathological obsession. For the NFL, however, the Super Bowl is the first marker of the success of the coming season. The league, in recent years especially, is desperate to expand its fan base — to the point of foisting the sport upon Mexico and England, neither of which really seem to have asked for it. The Super Bowl, for reasons only a social scientist could begin to explain, draws viewers who, for the other fifty-one weeks of the year, could care less about football, let alone the two teams actually competing. This one night is the NFL’s opportunity to showcase its product to the uninitiated and uninterested, to draw them into its dramatic and violent spectacle. It is football’s job interview, a chance to convince the world that, even if it is violent and fails to magically insulate itself from political and social struggle, at least it is exciting.

In concept, the game did its best to deliver. The seemingly unstoppable Patriots were led by the legendary, if perhaps bickering, duo of quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. They have been the established class of the league for a span nearing two decades, a factory-like powerhouse preaching soulless professionalism and, in the process, committing copyright infringement on the New York Yankees. And what did the the rest of the league come up with to face them? The hard-luck Eagles, led by a backup quarterback, who two years ago was prepared to retire, and a coach who had been running a high school team within the past decade. Certainly, the Eagles had their stars — Fletcher Cox, Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Zach Ertz are no scrubs — but after quarterback Carson Wentz’s week 14 knee injury, their Super Bowl hopes were too unrealistic to be taken seriously. Armed with their nightmare-inspiring “underdog” masks, they looked to unseat the inevitable champions, for whom the actual game was supposed to be just a pre-crowning formality. A team that had dealt its fans crushing disappointment for the entirety of the Super Bowl era faced a juggernaut that gave its fans little reason to doubt.

This, of course, was not exactly a matchup of good and evil. Though their fortunes have differed in this millennium, Eagles and Patriots fans share a place atop the rankings of “most despised fan bases:” the Patriots’ for their (stereotype’s) arrogant blather and their Eagles’ counterparts for their propensity for throwing objects at opposing teams’ buses, among other departures from normative fan behavior.

The game began after some characteristically intricate pageantry, including what has to be the largest-ever assemblage of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients — reassuring those who might have chosen to doubt the league’s commitment to lionizing the country’s military — before players began their three-hour march toward CTE. From there, the game went much the way the NFL likely desired. Both teams’ offenses were productive, yet scoring was not inevitable. Three missed kicks added an element of chaos and uncertainty to the usual formula of a football game. The Patriots, late in the game, erased the deficit they had earlier allowed the Eagles to establish, only for the Eagles to answer with the game’s final lead change — though they still left a glimmer of hope for a New England comeback. All along the way, “Tide ads” and a dancing Eli Manning kept fans entertained, whilst NBC and the NFL made money hand over fist.

The game, however, played out under the shadow of football’s inadequacies. All the $10 million-a-minute ads and patriotic songs cannot change the fact that football fans have no idea what a catch is. The fate Sunday’s game rested on this harried definition. With fewer than three minutes to play in the fourth quarter and the Patriots leading 33-32, Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles threw to tight end Zach Ertz on a third-and-7 play from the Patriots’ 12-yard line. Ertz corralled the ball on the 6-yard line, turned to his left and headed for the end zone. He took three steps and appeared to trip as a New England defender attempted a tackle. As Ertz fell into the end zone, the ball came loose, flipping up into the air and hanging aloft as if suspended by the string of a marionette, tantalizing the Eagles players who swarmed towards it. When it came to earth, Ertz was there to catch it. The referees signaled a touchdown and the Eagles celebrated a huge swing in their win probability.

One might guess where this is headed. The moment the referees threw up their arms to announce the touchdown, NBC play-by-play broadcaster Al Michaels said to the audience, “All you can think back to now is the Jesse James play with Pittsburgh: does he complete the process [of the catch]?” This column dealt with the Jesse James issue in its last edition. After a long review where, as usual, the camera crew allowed the spectators to watch a referee watch a play they all just saw, the officials confirmed the ruling. Ertz, they said, had become a runner after gaining possession and was thus entitled to recover his fumble for a touchdown. This came as a grave shock to the booth announcers, who understood the catch rule to mean the pass was incomplete. Chris Collingsworth, not usually one to be at a loss for words, said, “I give up.”

A similar moment of resigned shrugging happened on most scoring plays during the game. If people thought analyzing slow motion video for intricate details was a fun and exciting way to spend three hours, Americans would pick a weekend in February to all sit down and watch the Zapruder film. Those who came to viewing parties Sunday night wondering whether football was worth their devotion saw football at its best, but also at its worst — by this I mean not only the rule nausea, but more importantly, the gruesome head injury suffered by Patriots’ wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the second quarter of the game. Football, of course, has more pressing concerns than the definition of a catch, the physical and mental effects of a career in the NFL being the most daunting. Yet, even for those of us who have little investment in the NFL’s ratings success, it is hard to watch an organization bungle it all so badly.