Joie de Vivre: NFL Films

In the best football news of an otherwise forgettable postseason, a vast archive of NFL Films footage is now available on Hulu. In related news, I have not left my residence in several days.

With eloquent narration from a series of memorably baritone voices, a sweeping and adventurous instrumental score, and a slow-motion aesthetic that became its trademark, NFL Films has become an integral part of football’s popularity in America. It isn’t a stretch to say that it helped fuel the sport’s growth and acceptance in American culture, to the point where it is now, if unofficially, the nation’s pastime.

It’s a remarkable achievement considering football’s inherent disadvantages in reaching an audience. First, fewer children play football than basketball or baseball (or, from what I hear, soccer), and thus fewer adults have an understanding of how the sport is played. It’s a far more complex sport than the others in terms of strategy: I have watched football for over 15 years and still know only the basics of the Cover 2 defense, which is more than can be said for most people who watch the sport. Compare this to basketball or even better baseball, where real “analysis” comes down to pitch sequence and whether the manager should have brought in a reliever or bunted.

NFL Films helps bridge that informational gap in sequences like the following, from “NFL’s Greatest Games: The Fumble”:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

In breaking down what is one of the most heartbreaking plays in the history of American sports,* NFL Films gets a perspective from each side (Browns’ coach Marty Schottenheimer, Broncos’ CB Jeremiah Castille) and the objective point-of-view from the immortal Dick Enberg. We get to hear the original broadcast, complete with analyst Merlin Olsen’s point that the Broncos had a big-play defense  that thrived on turnovers right before the snap and Enberg’s own hesitation before declaring it a fumble. Schottenheimer points out Webster Slaughter’s missed block—without calling Slaughter out by name—and Castille explains his own positioning prior to the play, which helped lead to said missed block. In four minutes, capped off by the excruciating shot of Earnest Byner sitting on the goal line, we learn pretty much everything we could about the play.** And NFL Films also offers this kind of detailed analysis with its sideline microphones, which pick up the interactions among coaches, players, and referees.

*Off the top of my head, only Bill Buckner in 1986 really comes close. I can’t come up with another instance in football of a star-crossed team losing a huge game on a play this excruciating—to a rival nonetheless. Things like the missed field goals by Scott Norwood and Gary Anderson only gained serious traction retrospectively: The Bills hadn’t lost the other three Super Bowls yet; the Vikings hadn’t lost that game yet. As nightmarish as the Giants’ blown lead to the 49ers was, that was Wild Card Weekend.

**Except Byner’s perspective, which you can’t really blame NFL Films for not getting.

Second, football is a vicious, vicious sport. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but most people don’t like to see violent things actually done to real people on a consistent basis. NFL Films, however, has romanticized the sport’s violence, lending it an almost highbrow veneer. There is something deeply paradoxical about showing highlights of player collisions with John Facenda’s hallowed voice reciting a poem in the background. I would even say it troubles me, if it weren’t so awesome to experience.

NFL Films, then, hasn’t just perpetuated a mythology about football; it’s created one from scratch—especially important and impressive given the sport’s relative youth and lack of history. By packaging its footage with the baritone voice of Facenda and his successors, an awe-inspiring score,* and that slow-motion cinematography, NFL Films lends a gravity to its production unseen in the portrayals of other classic sporting events. Our memory of games such as the Ice Bowl is derived entirely from NFL Films footage, from Vince Lombardi’s voice captured on the sideline by NFL Films microphones to Bart Starr’s slow-motion sneak, caught on NFL Films cameras. The aesthetic of NFL Films has infiltrated our very conception of the sport of football, whether it’s the constant comparisons to war or just the announcers who call games. It’s no surprise that the sport’s iconic play-by-play announcer, Pat Summerall, shares the baritone voice that Facenda forever linked to football.

*Seriously, what doesn’t sound better with NFL Films music in the background?

It’s reached the point where, while watching contemporary games, I imagine how NFL Films would present it—what plays merit special consideration, what unexpected players would earn interview time, what moment earns the score’s crescendo. I am still anxiously awaiting a Greatest Games installment on Super Bowl XLII to see if my thoughts matched Steve Sabol’s.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some old Super Bowls to watch.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on February 3, 2010 at 7:40 PM

    That’s an amazing clip of “The Fumble”. Great breakdown of the play, by the players and coaches. Thanks Tim for bringing this to our attention. I remember it like it was yesterday, and feeling so bad for Earnest Byner. The good news is that the Browns traded Byner for Mike Oliphant, an also-ran with the Redskins (my hometown team) who did nothing with the Browns. It was one the ‘Skins best trades ever. Byner played 4 excellent seasons with the ‘Skins (including 3 one thousand yard seasons), helping them win a Super Bowl with a touchdown catch. He was vindicated and hopefully has lived a happy life. He was a real solid runner, like Thomas Jones of the Jets.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Wey on February 4, 2010 at 12:10 AM

    I have heard that Byner, despite his success with the Skins as mentioned above, never did get over the fumble entirely…I mean, how could you? I think it had to be too traumatic…Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I always felt that the trauma from losing was greater than the elation from winning (so much of which is derived from the relief of not losing)….imagine when you’re seen as the sole cause?? I don’t think he ever felt entirely vindicated…

    The great irony in Byner’s story, of course, is that he returned to the Browns after his stint with the Skins…I can’t speak to whether he has lived a happy life, but I always thought he was a very solid RB coach…

    In retrospect, Browns’ fans should have thanked Byner for saving them from embarrassment at the hands of Doug Williams…

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on February 4, 2010 at 12:17 AM

      Yeah, I don’t think Byner could have felt truly vindicated unless he had won a Super Bowl in Cleveland. What was so especially traumatic was how poetic it would have been for the Browns to tie it late and win it in overtime in Denver after the Broncos had done it to them the year before in Cleveland. As I said in the post, I can’t really think of another NFL loss quite as painful.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Tim on February 4, 2010 at 3:49 PM

    For further proof of NFL Films’ greatness, you can check out the breakdown of James Harrison’s INT return, complete with something nobody had pointed out before:

    Also, the great Joe Posnanski just happened to write about NFL Films for SI this week. His piece is probably better than mine (probably), especially for lines like this:

    “Before the Sabols and NFL Films, mud on the football field was just mud on the football field. NFL Films turned that mud into something holy, something that reflected guts and manhood and courage. Mud proved a Herculean test for the players’ souls. NFL Films showed cleats sloshing in mud, mud dripping off taped hands, mud caked on arms, the way mud turned linebackers into heroic and dangerous figures. We take that for granted now because NFL Films has created this image of pro football, but there’s nothing intrinsically romantic about mud.”

    The full article is at: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/joe_posnanski/02/03/sabol/index.html#ixzz0ebPWS2qd

    Reply

  4. […] Tim wasn’t the only one to pen an ode to NFL Films on Wednesday; blog favorite Joe Posnanski wrote his own for Sports Illustrated, focusing more on […]

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  5. […] relying primarily on music and images. This was a daring and rewarding choice, as it allowed the aesthetic of football to speak for itself. And letting the tracking show of the final Hail Mary—because of course there was a Hail […]

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  6. […] Steve Sabol, one of the two men behind NFL Films, died last week. He was 69. Tim penned an appreciation for NFL Films back in 2010. […]

    Reply

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