Listening to the N.F.L.

Capitalism, as a couple of caustic observers once noted, makes everything solid melt into uncertain air, even collapsing the seasons one into the next. Under the stress of the economics of television advertising, the summer game of baseball now has its best games played on shivery autumn evenings, while the winter game of hockey has its biggest games played in summery June (and often in southern cities). American football, meanwhile, our autumnal sport, designed to dance on the falling leaves of Ivy League campuses (how many people know that Yale still holds the record for most national college championships?) now has its biggest games beginning in the coldest month of the year—in a season in which the game can live but for which it was never designed. And here we are now in that off, or off-kilter, season, with the thrilling slate of N.F.L. playoff games being fought, many in the hyper-cold of Buffalo and Kansas City, and even Baltimore. No matter—the games are good. Whatever else there may be to hate about the N.F.L., from inadequate concussion protocols to the ongoing good-dolphin, bad-dolphin debate about the redesign of Miami’s uniform, it puts on a fine competitive show, and there has hardly been a game that, as shivering spectacle, is worth missing.

With the decline of print sports writing, however—and the apparent death of Sports Illustrated last week seals a sadness that many of us have felt coming for a long time—the football lover who seeks out the kind of commentary and comedy that Roy Blount, Jr., and Bud Shrake once provided now has nothing to turn his attention to but . . . the astonishing panoply of pro-football podcasts! We are, perhaps, at, or even past, Peak Podcast, but this fan listens to an improbable array of them, often as a cure for insomnia. That may not sound like praise, but it is: for the true insomniac, it is not boredom but intelligent distraction that gives sleep a chance. Football podcasts provide, as podcasts will, a useful mix of objective information and individual idiosyncrasy, and a year’s worth of listening makes some commonalities evident. One of these is something that seems almost definitive of the podcast genre: that the B plot is always more interesting than the A plot. In the case of football podcasts, the A plot is essentially about who one should bet on to win a bet; the B plot involves the implicit familial, or even Freudian, relationship between two hosts, or between a chief host and an interlocutor, as they arrive at the wagers. We arrive for the picks and stay for the people.

The first to note is—who else?—New York’s very own Mike Francesa, the abdicated pope of drive-time radio, who, after years of deprecating podcasts, has left WFAN to launch “The Mike Francesa Podcast” (under the aegis of an online sports-gambling platform). The podcast, delivered with radio-like regularity, makes for delicious listening to anyone who heard Mike in his broadcast days. Here are all of his signature moves: the unhinged anger directed at some hapless coach or athlete; the instant amnesia about the earlier anger when last week’s villain suddenly does something Mike likes; the absolute certainty about everything combined with the absolute absence of analytic acuity; and the best remaining Archie Bunker-vintage New York accent. Gone is his poor, screeching co-host, Mad Dog; gone even are the callers, Don from Long Island and Vinny from Staten Island. No, it’s pure Mike, uninterrupted and talking only to himself, like a character in a Beckett monologue.

For all Mike’s gift for getting it wrong and then forgetting he ever even tried to get it—it was Mike who sapiently explained to his listeners that any team picking Patrick Mahomes would likely live to regret it—he remains an unparalleled listen, and not only because a drinking game might be invented around his invocation of this or that “colossahal disastuh.” He speaks with the voice of the old New York sports establishment, with all its all-male booze-and-barstool culture. (Note that his reappearance has even reignited an old-school tabloid feud, with his old nemesis Phil Mushnick of the New York Post keeping track of Mike’s, uh, irregularly achieved predictions. “mike francesa hits embarrassing trifecta of woefully wrong betting picks” was the headline on a column not long ago.) Mike retains the old establishment’s deference to history. When he talks about what Mickey Mantle did in 1957, or for that matter shares his obsession with J.F.K., it is with real reverence, and we feel back in touch with a more spacious time, a time when you “grew up” at Yankee Stadium seeing afternoon games regularly, not for an expensive once-a-year occasion, and might have fretted, as Mike still does, about the lack of “left-handed powah” in the “short porch” in right. It was, if not a better time in New York sports, then at least a more organic one, and Mike is our last living connection to it.

If Mike F.’s podcast speaks for our lost past, then no team represents the stats-driven present of sports talk quite so engagingly as the team of Sheil Kapadia and Ben Solak, of the Ringer network, and their two podcasts: “Philly Special” (devoted exclusively to the ailing Eagles) and “Extra Point Taken” about the N.F.L. in toto. What makes it work so well is, again, what the boys and girls in the comp-lit classes might call the liminal interlineation of their A plot and B plot. The A plot turns on the exchange of takes—spicy, fresh, or conventional—between the pair. Solak, who is twentysomething, and looks and sounds twelve, is a savant of the inner game of football, one of the rare people who actually understand all the X’s-and-O’s stuff that the Francesas of the world wearily deprecate as less important than hard work and mental toughness. To hear him explain why the victorious Packers were able to sit down on the rudimentary slant patterns that the Cowboys were running a couple of weeks ago is like hearing a physics problem being explained by an engagingly precocious young professor.

Kapadia, in contrast, is a beat reporter more or less of the older school: ex-Seahawks as well as ex-Eagles (nice to know there still are such things). Perhaps a little improbably for this role, he’s also the son of Indian immigrants, who at least once, I’m sure I recall, could be heard musing whether spending all his time brooding on the career choices of immense, overpaid Americans was exactly what his parents intended when they sought opportunity in this country. The B plot, almost a sitcom in itself, involves the exchanges between the rueful family man Kapadia and the boy savant Solak, and it’s that drama which gives their work its savor and soul. Kapadia admires Solak for his celerity and turn of phrase, but becomes parentally wary, watching his savvy run away with his judgment; “football hipsters” is his gorgeous derisory phrase for overambitious analytics. Like any dad, real or symbolic, Kapadia occasionally explodes at Solak’s know-it-all antics, at the kid just home from college, who, having attended one of those comp-lit seminars, thinks he knows more literature than his father. Seeing how far Solak can push the imperturbable Kapadia is as unmissable as it is instructive.

The pioneering team of Mike Tanier and Aaron Schatz has washed up on the shores of podcasting after the shipwreck (more capitalism at work, apparently) of their classic Web site, Football Outsiders. “The Schatz & Tanier NFL Podcast” adds statistical detachment to amateur passion. Schatz is the Bill James of football analysis, the inventor of the confusingly named but vital stat called D.V.O.A.—“defense-adjusted value over average”—which is, as best a nonanalytical mind can understand, a way of adjusting football stats for the context in which they take place. (It made him the man who ended “establish the run” as received football wisdom, in much the way that James ended “advance the runner with a bunt” in baseball.)

Schatz has a soothingly chewy rabbinical tone, which Tanier encourages by a regularly murmured “Right . . . right . . .” What makes them appealing, rabbinically enough, is their taste for skeptical inquiry into the very systems they have invented. When the Ravens emerged earlier this year as one of the best D.V.O.A. teams that has ever been fielded, Schatz’s response, at least in my midnight memory, was not to hype the Ravens but to doubt his system. Bill James himself once said that he thought maybe what mattered on the Red Sox team he advised was “veteran leadership”—precisely the type of nebulous emotional generalization that his analytics was designed to destroy. He was sort of joking, but not entirely, as he elaborated: “It is one thing to build an analytical paradigm that leaves out leadership, hustle, focus, intensity, courage, and self-confidence; it is a very, very different thing to say that leadership, hustle, courage, and self-confidence do not exist or do not play a role on real-world baseball teams.” The capacity to be gently surprised by the results of a system one has devised is healthier than self-reverence.

Michael Lombardi’s “GM Shuffle,” presented with his affable sidekick Femi Abebefe, is also worth catching. Lombardi is a staunch proponent of the “mental toughness” and “team culture” explanation of what wins football games. This theory is vulnerable to the charge of circularity. (What do winning teams have in common? Mental toughness. What does mental toughness produce? Winning teams.) But though a logician might not be impressed, he couldn’t deny that Lombardi has long and deep experience helping run winning teams noted for their mental toughness. His lineage is matchless: he worked with Bill Walsh at San Francisco, with Bill Belichick and Nick Saban at Cleveland, and with Al Davis at Oakland. If his grumpy, dissatisfied tones do not always explicate his idea, his fine book on sports management, “Gridiron Genius,” gives them better shape. We learn that “team culture” really means attention to detail and getting past windy rah-rah to focus relentlessly on the specific tasks of each person in the organization, from the quarterback to the beverage manager. (Walsh, greatest of coaches, would work incomparably long hours figuring out how to use every inch of the fifty-three-yard-wide field. It is somehow counterintuitive, at least to the fan raised on television, to grasp that a football field is half as wide as it is long, giving fifty yards of horizontality to play with in addition to its hundred yards of depth. Walsh, rather Newton-like, was the first to have this spatial apple fall on his head, and modern offenses still benefit from the clunk.)

Given Lombardi’s experience, one feels that one is actually getting insights into the way that real general managers think. Among these is the fact that they do care more about effort and character than about skill, since “intangibles,” as we know from our own lives, tend to boil down to tangibles: the most “gifted” people in most fields turn out to be the ones who labor hardest. Emily Dickinson was the hardest-working poet in Amherst. With this podcast, the B plot lies less in the interchange with the co-host than within the host, in the way that Lombardi’s exhaustive knowledge of the insider’s view is tempered by the fact that he’s now on the outside. We feel his frustration at knowing what they oughta do, if only they’d ask. Like Falstaff, he seems certain that he will be sent for soon.

It would be lovely to enumerate here more of the single-team podcasts: our own Jets podcast, courtesy of the New York Post, “Gang’s All Here,” matchless for its tone of constant despair, its way of savoring the upcoming indignity even while smarting body and soul from the previous one, or the Seattle Seahawks’s “Cigar Thoughts” with Jacson Bevens, notable not only for a sweet-temperedness rare in sports talk but also for a cigar-lighting ritual that—given the medium’s limitations when it comes to sharing the aroma of a fine stogie and showing us smoke rings—seems to recall the days when a ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, was the most popular entertainer on American radio. But if we want a larger inference, from all these hours of late-night listening, it might be that the real B plot of all pro-football podcasting is the insidious growth of gambling and also the darker truth of the game’s increasingly unsustainable violence. Most of the podcasts mentioned are supported by one of the gambling apps—BetRivers, FanDuel, DraftKings, etc.—that have become improbably prosperous in the past few years. And although the ads have countless reminders to gamble sensibly and to phone for help as needed, there is clearly a generation being raised to regard gambling not as a subset of fandom but as the essence of fandom itself. Even if gambling never caused harm, seeing sports this way degrades fandom, by making it less about loyalty to a team than shrewdness about superintending the over and under. A parlay makes allegiance impossible.

As to the harms of the game itself, they often arise in podcast conversation, in lists of players not practicing, but the scale of this truth seems to be reflexively hushed. What’s not said is enough to spark the suspicion that the most important factor in who wins the Super Bowl is not X’s and O’s or the Jacks and Joes, not moral character or even the spacing of slant routes, but simply who is still standing after the impossibly long season has led us from July to the brink of February. One has the sense that pro football has become a form of demolition derby, even as demolition derby itself has fallen under hard times. The list of those players not practicing is as long and doleful as a list of fallen warriors in Homer. Of thirty-two teams, more than half have, by year’s end, been playing someone other than their opening-day starting quarterback. This may be an unavoidable consequence of ever-more-fit players playing ever more games, but it’s still a painful truth and one whose scale we hide from, just a little. Perhaps that’s why we increasingly seem to like hearing about the games even more than watching them. It’s less painful, for the players and for us. ♦

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