Week 2 of the NFL rolled along right on schedule this past weekend, but Tuesday afternoon news broke that NFL Films president Steve Sabol had passed away at the age of 69, and almost instantly there was an avalanche of affection all over Twitter and the internet.
With good reason: Steve Sabol was the guy who made the videos that made the NFL look like the funniest, manliest, greatest sport on earth. He's a legend in football and sports, in general.
So instead of running down the Week 2 storylines this week, let's just press the nostalgia button. Because there's never a bad reason to watch some NFL Films videos, and because there's no better way to remember Steve Sabol. We begin with Lawrence Taylor.
2. Reminder: Lawrence Taylor was a freight train of batshit awesomeness, and 25 years after his rookie year we've still never seen anyone like him. He was the greatest. I never saw Lawrence Taylor play, but I know this paragraph is true in part because of NFL Films and Steve Sabol.
3. At the start of this clip you've got two of the most famous coaches in NFL History -- Tony Dungy and Bill Parcells -- just sitting there laughing about the greatest defensive player to ever step on a football field. You could show an endless loop of highlights or put together a dozen interviews with former players testifying about LT, and none of them would be half as convincing as two of the greatest coaches in history laughing about how Lawrence Taylor is the only player in football who's worth every penny.
4. It seems we shouldn't be allowed to be hear a conversation like that, and that's part of what makes NFL Films so incredible: We shouldn't be able to hear a conversation like that. So it becomes twice as cool when we do. NFL Films gives that to us constantly.
5. Beyond the LT video, there are dozen of these little mini-documentaries on YouTube, all focusing on various Hall of Famers from the past, all from the same show where Sabol and NFL Films count down the 100 greatest players in NFL history. They have the feel of an old VHS documentary you might've watched in science class in high school, except literally 10 billion times cooler.
6. People talk about the way NFL Films humanized players and coaches for the public, but that's not what made Sabol's work so great. In general, these videos took characters that football had already turned into Gods and then gave us an inside look at the way they talk to each other. They were no more human afterwards, it only enhanced the legend. NFL Films taught us over and over again that the truth of football is twice as entertaining than anything we would've imagined.
7. Just an outstanding sequence from an outstanding clip on NFL Cursing.
Player: "Tippy-toein like a bitch!"
Random white dude being interviewed: "They're very emotional..."
Coach: "Take that f***ing blitz and stick it up your ass, Jerry Glanville!"
8. Later in that video, Jon Gruden to Jeff Garcia: "Would you start to have a little fun here, and shut the f*** up? Ok, Mr. f***in hero?" And if you can't appreciate a six minute clip full of coaches and players screaming profanity, would you start to have a little fun here, and shut the f*** up?
9. Speaking of stupid fun:
10. The Kris Jenkins Golf Cart Interlude. Sabol and NFL Films gave us Hard Knocks, and nothing captures what makes Hard Knocks so perfect quite like the 13 second interlude above. The joy on Jenkins' face, the sheer randomness of the moment, the perfect NFL Films music. It's an unnecessary scene to include in any reality show, it's totally irrelevant to the Jets, and a hundred little moments like that are exactly what makes Hard Knocks better and more fun than a thousand other shows that try to take you "Inside the Game" or whatever.
11. You can watch a game with a non-football fan and maybe they'll understand the appeal, but probably not. Football looks like an insane mess to the uninitiated. But show that same person an episode of Hard Knocks, and between the comedy, drama, and the sheer spectacle of it all, even the deepest skeptics will get hooked.
12. (Steve Sabol made my girlfriend like football is basically what I'm saying here.)
13. But as great as Hard Knocks is, re-watching some of Steve Sabol's greatest hits makes you remember what sports used to be like, when it was all one big Costacos Brothers Poster.
14. THUNDER AND DESTRUCTION. Jesus, this is so awesome.
15. Ronnie Lott in that video: "If you watch all the films prior to that game, it wasn't one free safety that had came up and hit Ickey Woods straight up. Most of the people that had got good shots on Ickey were hitting him on glancing blows, not direct on, but from sides. So I knew going into this game that I had to deliver a blow. You know? I just wanted to come after and make sure that he realized there was going to be somebody there that was going to attack him." [/cue montage of Ronnie Lott obliterating Ickey Woods and 10 other players.]
16. 49ers tackle Bubba Paris: "He hits people so hard that... I mean, If somebody was to hit my son that hard, I'd probably come to the game with a shotgun and shoot him..."
17. ...Yeah, everything about that video is the greatest thing ever, and it could never, EVER be made in 2012, which makes you appreciate it even more. The same way Blazing Saddles could never get made today. That's part of the charm. One obvious conclusion here might be that a guy who spent his life glorifying football's nastier side passed away at the right time because football's not necessarily something we want to glorify anymore.
18. On the other hand: The company Sabol and his father built is the ultimate counterpoint to the Fox Robot and the NFL's obsession with the U.S. military and Bob Costas and Tony Dungy's moralizing and Roger Goodell and everything else about the NFL-as-America analogy that makes you sort of hate America. NFL Films began with Ed Sabol, after he'd taped Steve's high school games and realized he was good at filming football, and eventually convinced the NFL he'd be good at filming their games, too. Together, father and son made it into the most successful sports documentary machine in the world -- simply by working harder, being smarter, and never confusing themselves with the product they were selling, always glorifying the game, not their own brand.
19. Look at this NFL Films producer talking in a profile from the Atlantic:
“It was a Jets game,” he said. “Curtis Martin takes a handoff and runs to the sideline. A defender comes up, and they collide right in front of me. I thought they were both dead. Two people that big, that fast, hitting each other full speed—I thought I’d witnessed a murder. Then they jump up and run back, and I saw it 30 more times in the next hour, and I realized that what you see from the stands is nothing. That’s what we want to show people: what it’s really like.”
20. Bringing that to life is a challenge, and sort of an art all its own. But you get the sense that the Sabols and everyone else at NFL Films always had fun with the challenge. And it's not really a fun footnote to add to a tribute piece, but the people at NFL Films don't seem to be having as much fun these days.
21. As someone pointed out on Twitter, last summer the Philadelphia Daily News ran a story on the relationship between NFL Films and the NFL Network. Sabol never criticizes the NFL in the story, but others at NFL Films aren't quite so diplomatic. As an ex-producer tells it:
"You've got these guys [at NFL Network] now with ADD, they're watching that ball spinning and they're saying, 'OK, let's catch it already. Go, go, go. Catch the ball, will ya.'
We would sit down in meetings with them occasionally when I was there and we'd be discussing programming for the upcoming season. Every time we would propose an NFL Films-type look at something, you could kind of see them say, 'Well, ya know, we were thinking of something that was a little edgier and a little punchier and a little faster.'"
22. The NFL started its own network in 2003, but handed programming control to a former ESPN executive instead of putting Sabol and NFL Films in control. Since then, the Films budget has been cut, employees have been laid off, and their programming's been reduced.
"Our autonomy was protected vigorously through the years," [a former NFL Films vice president] said of a company that Sports Illustrated once called the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America. "[Pete] Rozelle believed that the ownership shouldn't be dictating to Films how these things should be done. [Paul] Tagliabue essentially carried on the same philosophy. Leave these guys alone. They're doing the job for us. We'll just screw it up if we go down there and try to change substantially what the model is and has been for all those years."
Since Roger Goodell succeeded Tagliabue as commissioner in 2006, the bottom line has become a much more integral factor in league policy and decision-making."
23. Of course.
24. It's not even a little surprising to find out that today's NFL has squeezed the NFL Films budget and reduced their influence. Today's pro football coverage is loud, clumsy, over-produced, and over-exposed, and driven by the bottom line. Basically the polar opposite of everything Steve Sabol's work embodied, and perfectly consistent with everything Roger Goodell's NFL embodies.
25. Even if football's changing and it's less enjoyable and even if it changes forever one day, remembering Steve Sabol and watching a bunch of NFL Films videos on Tuesday reminded me that no matter what happens to football from here, I'll always love what pro football was. And Steve Sabol captured what we loved better than anyone, so I guess I'll always love him, too.