A New Season For The Greatest Show On Earth

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 01: Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys and Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants greet each other after their game at MetLife Stadium on January 1, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

The NFL returns Wednesday night with Eli Manning and the Giants against Tony Romo and the Cowboys, and America's most popular sport is back in prime time to dominate all over again.

THE CONTEXT

Football is the most popular sport in America right now, and really, if you look at the ratings, football's the most popular anything in America right now. This is at least partly because sports are supposed to be an escape from reality, and nothing provides a more complete departure from the ordinary than the Psychadelic Combat Shitshow that is the NFL at its best and brightest in prime time. It's a game played by aliens on planet Earth (have you seen Terrell Suggs?) at speeds that aren't totally safe and with rules and rituals that aren't totally sane -- and especially in big games, it's usually close.

Obviously, nobody who watches football thinks of it like this grand apocalyptic escape.

I definitely don't. The Cowboys and Giants play in the NFL's opener Wednesday night, so that means I'm going to a bar to watch, but only after I dig my Dez Bryant jersey out of the closet. Because Dez Bryant's hilarious, and completely ridiculous, and stupidly athletic, and it's fun watching Dallas and rooting for him and imagining guys like Bob Costas balling up their fists and getting all disgusted by his success.

We all have different reasons to enjoy watching football. But I swear the basic Cultural Addiction goes back to the drama and insanity of what happens Any Given Sunday (and Wednesday, now). Nothing can match it.

For instance: People play pickup basketball and soccer, they play in old men's hockey and baseball leagues, and if those games don't exactly live up to their professional counterparts, they're at least working with the same basic framework.

Nobody plays pickup tackle football with pads and helmets.

Normal Adult Humans don't see the point, because it's impossible and it would just end in injuries and embarrassment for everyone. The speed and skill and violence of pro football is so many degrees removed from Normal Adult Humans that even mimicking it with friends is a complete waste of time. Instead we watch "Hard Knocks," "NFL Matchup," and a thousand other shows that take us inside the game and let us learn as much as possible about the aliens populating this billion dollar universe that none of us will ever experience. Then we can all compare notes about what happened.

This brings us to the quarterbacks.

THE MAIN CHARACTERS

The one position that most people relate to and focus on more than anything is probably the one where the players are most supernaturally different than the rest of us. Think about who's more ridiculous as an athlete: Terrell Suggs, the freak of nature mercenary or Eli Manning, the QB who stares down a group of four of five guys exactly like Terrell Suggs, chooses between three receivers in less than three seconds, plants his foot, and lofts a ball into a tiny window, all while ignoring the possibility of oblivion.

Playing defensive end might be possible if you were 270 pounds and ran a 4.5 40. Playing quarterback would probably be impossible for all of us regardless.

And yet, people see quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Tony Romo and identify with them more than anyone else on the field. They become the face of their team's success or failure, fair or not. Which is funny in the case of the Giants and Cowboys, because of who we're talking about.

Eli Manning can look every bit as good as Drew Brees and make fans think he's the greatest thing to happen to the Giants since Lawrence Taylor, but then he can also look like Mark Sanchez and drive those same fans insane. Tony Romo can also look like Drew Brees and trick Cowboys fans into thinking he's one of the three best quarterbacks in football, but eventually he also looks like Mark Sanchez. (Note: Mark Sanchez never look like Drew Brees. He's Mark Sanchez all the time.)

But Eli Manning is a folk hero forever and Tony Romo is a punchline, even though we're basically talking about two elite quarterbacks prone to sporadic bouts of stupidity. The difference has been a handful of moments where Eli came through and cemented his reputation as "clutch" and where Romo found new and different ways to have the ball bounce the wrong way.

THE DRAMA

There's this obnoxious cartoon that resurfaces every few months on the internet:

Sports_medium

Diehard sports fans can talk themselves into circles just from those three sentences and eventually this internal debate starts to look a lot like an argument over faith.

  • Do you believe that there's some supernatural and intangible quality that makes certain players better than others?
  • Or is it all just a by-product of random chances and bounces one way or another?

Something like the Tim Tebow "intangibles" debate was a waste of everyone's time because Tebow is objectively awful as a passer, so pretending he's something more just makes everyone dumber. But when you're looking at the careers of guys like Romo and Manning it gets dicier -- and more fun. That's where all the drama and Great Unknowns become real: With two very good football players the difference between hero and punchline comes down to a handful of defining moments that play out in real-time every year.

If you love the Cowboys, maybe you have faith that it all comes back to random chance and believe Romo is due for success. If you love the Giants, maybe it's all about intangibles and believing that there really is something in Eli's DNA that makes him better than Romo. (For one thing, he's definitely better at throwing in the face of a pass rush.)

This is how it works for all NFL fans: We adapt to who we're rooting for. We latch onto the main characters like Romo and Eli -- or if you're a Redskins fan, RG3 -- and they become the hero, and suddenly our answers to the questions above start changing. For example, if you asked a Redskins fan about a running quarterback under Donovan McNabb two years ago, the answer you'd get would be very different than what you hear with RG3 in D.C. this year.

People watch television the same way. With Mad Men, people lapse into a different world and root for greedy, womanizing main characters, but then the same people watch The Wire and identify with desperate drug dealers. Football gives us the vivid characters of all those shows populating an insane universe that's nothing like our reality. And however you think it happens, characters like Romo and Manning give us narratives that are easier to understand than any of the best shows on television. The spectacle is unmatched, the stories are universally understood, and everyone we know has a different favorite character. Of course football's the most popular sport in America.

THE END

Because of the popularity and the danger and the insanity of it all, there have been a lot of Serious Conversations about football and what it means in America in 2012. And I don't know, I don't love football in some profound way, and I don't think most NFL fans do. On a basic level it's just entertainment. Not a metaphor for masculinity or war or anything. Just the best, most universally enjoyed entertainment America has right now. Where everyone can throw away logic and get lost in it, and then talk about what we got lost in, and usually end up making jokes about Tony Romo.

Pro football is in a weird place, definitely, and we can and should talk about Junior Seau and concussions and depression and morality and how it's all connected to this entertainment, but that takes time and perspective and we'll see where the conversations go.

For now, though: After another lifeless sports summer, I'm excited to be stupidly talking myself into Tony Romo this week, and getting together with friends Wednesday night to watch the game. It's September and the NFL is back. I'm excited to be entertained again.

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