Thursday, July 11, 2013

NFL Culture By Team (Part 1)

By Kevin Beane

Have you ever tried to proselytize for the NFL or football in general? Perhaps you were in the throes of the honeymoon phase of a relationship where you still earnestly gave a rip about your partner's interests. Or maybe you have a new coworker from a country where "hut" is the pervasive living domicile rather than what a quarterback calls out before the snap.

While of course explaining the X's and O's are necessary, I think any sport or spectator pastime has a greater chance of taking permanent root if the learner has some sort of larger understanding of each team, its culture, its reputation, and so on.

This is how I would "explain" every team to someone who knows nothing about the NFL. Like anyone, I have my biases and perceptions which differ from yours, and I look forward to your angry letters for not sanctifying your team. Part one will be the AFC.

New York Jets — As is the case with most sports, New York has two NFL teams (although they actually both play in nearby Northern New Jersey and share a stadium), and in each case, one team is the standard-bearer New York franchise that has the majority of fans and cultural cache, and the other team is something of a little brother.

The Jets are definitely the "little brother." While they have surprised people by squeaking into the playoffs and then upset their way into the AFC championship game twice in recent years, they have now regressed to ineptitude led by their quarterback Mark Sanchez, who both put up horrible numbers last year and committed the most embarrassing turnover, known as the "buttfumble," in quite a while.

The Jets seem to attract colorful or divisive characters, and have throughout their history. There was "Broadway Joe" Namath, who led the team to their only Super Bowl and very much had a movie star persona. There was Mark Gastineau with his flowing locks, fu-manchu moustache, celebrity girlfriends, and sack dance. They recently cut ties with Tim Tebow, a player so uncharacteristically pure and evangelical that everyone either loves him or hates him but no one, and certainly not the sports media, can stop talking about him even though he doesn't even see the field much. Finally, there is Rex Ryan, their coach, who is straight out of Central Casting for football coaching for his creatively profane and larger-than-life personality.

Miami Dolphins — The Dolphins were one of the most dominant teams of the '70s and '80s. Perhaps because of this, they do not really pick up any underdog sympathy even though they've been a non-factor in the NFL for quite some time. In 1972, they finished undefeated and won the Super Bowl, the last team to go all year without a loss. An urban legend developed that each year, the surviving members of that team get together for champagne shortly after the last undefeated team goes down. They don't, but they do call each other and congratulate themselves, which is odious enough.

Buffalo Bills — They are most famous for making four straight Super Bowls a couple of decades ago and losing them all. They have not been to the playoffs in forever and are by far the most forgettable team in a storied division.

New England Patriots — If you really were going to explain every team to an NFL neophyte over a few rounds of drinks, the Pats would take up half that time. In short, they are perhaps the most reviled franchise in American sports. This is because they are very, VERY good, and they go about being so good in a way no one outside of their local fan base could love.

They are led by their coach Bill Belichick. He would make a good movie villain if he had an ounce of charisma. He makes plain his acrimony for the media (which does earn him respect from some corners) and goes out if his way to be as uncooperative and uninformative as he can be like no other coach does. He does not smile.

The Patriots ignoble legend crystallized in 2007. They finished the regular season 16-0, the first team to do so since those 1972 Dolphins. In the first half of the season, the closest game they had was a 17-point victory. This made many NFL fans uneasy. We take pride in a bit of parity and have a saying about how, "any given Sunday, any team can beat another." We appreciate dynastic teams but don't like it when one team is clearly much, MUCH better than everyone else, as the Patriots were.

But what really sunk public opinion against New England was the revelation that they were secretly videotaping their opponents' coaching signals during a game against the Jets, something the league punished them for. The Jets were exponentially overmatched by the Patriots but that didn't stop the Pats from cheating.

New England would make it to the Super Bowl and lose in stunning fashion. There was much rejoicing. While never again as dominant as they were in 2007, they are still always among the best teams in the NFL, with many of the same characters from that year still around, so antipathy towards the "Greatriots" continues apace.

Pittsburgh Steelers — One of the two or three most storied, celebrated franchises. They have won more Super Bowls than any other team (six). They are led by their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is satirically portrayed as a Faulknerian manchild by Kissing Suzy Kolber, the pre-eminent NFL humor website. In fact, if you want to understand the perceptions of players and fans in much crueler, hilarious terms than I am laying out, KSK should be a regular stop for you.

Cleveland Browns — The Steelers' hapless rival. They are "storied" too, a very old franchise that last won a championship in 1964, but have projected bumbling incompetence for many years now (they had a player hospitalized a few years ago for reasons the team would not disclose, and it turns out it was for a nasty staph infection he got from the team's facilities), and they represent a city that also projects bumbling incompetence.

That said, the Browns are something of a lovable underdog. Teams change cities and names with some frequency, and when the "original" Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore, the nation really made their displeasure felt in a way that was heartwarming for this Cleveland-area boy. In the end, the NFL couldn't reward Cleveland a new franchise fast enough, and a judge ruled that the new team got to keep the old Browns' records and legacy.

Baltimore Ravens — The "real" old Browns. Typical of the kind of luck Cleveland has, this franchise never won (or appeared in) a Super Bowl while in that city, but has won two since relocating to Baltimore. They are the defending Super Bowl champions and their claim to fame has for many years been their suffocating defense.

Cincinnati Bengals — The other franchise in Ohio is nearly as hapless as the Browns. They do make the playoffs with a lot more regularity than the Browns, however, and so their coach, Marvin Lewis, is something of a president-for-life figure in Cincinnati, even though making the playoffs once every 4-5 years would not be good enough to remain employed in many, many NFL cities.

Indianapolis Colts — The Colts for many years were guided by quarterback/Godhead Peyton Manning, who brought the team a Super Bowl victory and constant competitiveness. Manning left prior to the 2011 season and the Colts responded by slipping to the very bottom of the NFL. They made a big comeback last year with their rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and returned the playoffs. The statistics (especially points for/points against) suggest, however, they were punching above their weight in a big way in 2012 so we'll see if they regress to some sort of mean next year.

Houston Texans — They made the playoffs for the first time 2 years ago, which sounds bad but they have only existed since 2002. As such, they don't really have any sort of reputation at all. In fact, the entire division of the Colts, Texans, Jaguars, and Titans garners less interest and intrigue than any other division in the NFL, and the reason is only the Colts go back beyond 1995 (although the Titans existed as the Houston Oilers before moving to Tennessee).

Jacksonville Jaguars — Another young team without much of a national identity, good or bad. They made waves by making it to the conference championship game in just their second year of existence in 1996, as did their expansion brethren Carolina Panthers. However, since then, the Panthers for one reason or another have remained more nationally relevant.

Oakland Raiders — Another storied franchise. The Raiders are the motorcycle gang of the NFL. Their fans have a reputation for violence and psychosis. For most of their history they were led by owner Al Davis, who can only be described as "nefarious." He was also lawsuit happy. This is a very popular destination for players whose legal or interpersonal troubles have given them trouble latching on to other teams.

San Diego Chargers — Here is a team that usually looks better on paper than they actually perform on the field. They have long had enough talent to garner respect even if they don't do much with it. They are led by quarterback Phillip Rivers, who has what is known in the U.S. sports biz as "rabbit ears." That is, he listens to and reacts to trash talk from opponents and fans rather than shutting it out. It's not a good quality to have. He is a frequent target of mockery on KSK.

Denver Broncos — Very respected and successful franchise. The only thing preventing them from being akin to the Steelers, Cowboys, or Packers is that their success doesn't date much beyond the mid-'80s. Fun rivalry with Oakland, although it's been awhile since the Raiders were as consistently good as the Broncos. Famous for having such a strong offensive line protecting the run that they can and do make a different running back into a star seemingly every year. They also were led very briefly, and not unsuccessfully, by Tim Tebow, which sent the nation into a tizzy.

Kansas City Chiefs — This is a team that is in need of a makeover, both on and off the field. On, because they are not very good. Off, because this is a team with a startling recent history of petulant, bratty bullies from former head coach Todd Haley to former general manager Scott Pioli to former running back Larry Johnson. In a sense, they are sort of like the Raiders in that they project a sort of violence, but not in a sexy way you might grudgingly admire, like the Raiders do. The Raiders will steal your woman (with her enthusiastic consent) and leave tire tracks on your forehead. The Chiefs will punch you in the back and spit in your while you're in the bathroom.

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