What should I watch now that football is over?

Dear Sports Fan,

What should I watch now that football is over?


Dear Leah,

Once the Super Bowl has passed, there is a period of about a month and a week that is very quiet in terms of sport. Oh, sure, there are lots of interesting sporting events if you’re a die-hard sports fan but none of them are truly vital. If you’re an unaffiliated sports fan, I can give a few recommendations for exciting events to watch. If you’re a sports fan living with a non-sports fan, my best advice is to give way in the entertainment choice arena.

If you’re a sports fan living with one or more non-sports fans, you’ve probably been a little selfish recently. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you (and the power of the National Football League) probably dominated in terms of choosing what was on the television over the last few months. You’re probably going to want to have your way again in a month or two when college basketball enters its conference championship season around March 11 and then March Madness begins on the 15th. Later in the spring, the basketball and hockey playoffs will be on. It’s time to, for the purposes of fairness and as an investment for future television domination, watch some other stuff! Here are some non-sports possibilities:

  • Downton Abbey is back! In some ways, this show is the antithesis of sports. It’s hard to imagine Lady Mary or her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, putting on shin guards and cleats to play soccer. At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine David Aldridge doing a post-game interview with either of them after a social event. “You got a couple of real zingers in there against cousin Isobel. What were you thinking when you made your move?
  • Watch The Station Agent! I know, I know, it came out in 2003, but I just recently discovered it and it is wonderful! Not only is it an enjoyable and off movie (starring Tyrion from Game of Thrones) but it’s also one of the best representations of my home state, New Jersey, that I’ve ever seen.
  • How about BATTLESTAR GALACTICA? Another oldie, once you get past the title and the fact that it’s science fiction (unless you’re into that stuff) this show has everything you could wish for. Great characters, real issues, the fate of the human race, etc.!

The important thing is not what you watch, it’s that you make sure the people around you know that you appreciate their giving way during football season and that you are willing to pay them back now. Whatever they want to watch, give it a chance!

Now, if you are an unaffiliated sports fan or someone who got into football and is now wondering what other sports there are to watch, you’re in luck. Although the major national must-see sporting events don’t start back up for another month or so, there are lots of compelling smaller events between now and then. Looking at our handy 2015 in the United States of Sports map there are eight featured sports things between now and March Madness.

  • On February 13, the USA Sevens rugby tournament begins. This is an international tournament of the faster and easier to follow seven person version of rugby. It’s lots of fun to watch, although the U.S. probably won’t win.
  • The NBA All-Star Game and skills competition is in New York this year on the weekend of February 14 and 15. Although the game itself can barely be called a competitive sporting event, it often is good entertainment.
  • On February 18, the North Carolina Tarheels play the Duke Blue Devils in men’s basketball. Although this is just a regular season game, the word “just” can barely ever be used to describe the atmosphere when these rivals meet up. This year, both teams are very good, so the rivalry will be even more tense than normal.
  • If you’re into fishing or watching other people fish, the Bassmaster Classic on February 20 is the event for you. If you’re a fish, stay away!
  • On February 25, Rhode Island hosts the US Figure Skating Synchronized Skating Championships. This sport is surprisingly mesmerizing. If you’ve ever wanted to see what 15 Russian women dancing in unison on skates to Whitney Houston looks like, you’re in luck!
  • March 4 is the official start of college basketball conference tournaments, including the Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Arkansas.
  • The most famous dog sled race in the world, Alaska’s Iditarod, begins on March 7. If you’ve ever wanted a behind-the-scenes look at that race, you should read Brian Phillips’ piece on it from 2013.

There you go! Football may be over, but there are plenty of wonderful entertainment options in the sports world and beyond!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Do Not Watch This Game: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars

I’ve mostly discontinued my Do Not Watch This Game column. I used to write a weekly column where I featured one game big sports game, which for one reason or another, I thought would be good to skip if you were looking to skip a game. I thought it would be a useful column for people in relationships where one partner is a sports fan and the other isn’t. For the non-sports fan, it provides a suggestion about when it would be good to sneak something else into the schedule or to negotiate a little harder for the television, knowing that the game in question is of dubious value. For the sports fan, it’s a good reminder not to buy the hype surrounding the game which is all too often easy enough to do if you’re not paying attention. I discontinued it as a weekly feature but this week, there’s a game that is so screaming out to be ignored, that I decided to take the Do Not Watch This Game column for an encore spin around the block.

Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NFL Football, Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s on the NFL Network, but do not watch this game!

Look, I’m not going to tell you there’s no drama in this game — there is — but the drama is because both teams have a very strong incentive to lose! The Titans and Jaguars are both 2-12 and locked in a close battle for last place with three other teams: the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also 2-12 and the New York Jets are 3-13. The last place team is rewarded with the first pick in next year’s NFL draft, the second worst team, the second pick, and so on. The difference between the overall first pick and the fifth is often huge. In next year’s draft, there are really only two great quarterbacks prospects (by far the most important position in football) and one of them, Jameis Winston, poses real character issues after his many off-the-field issues. So, these five teams are fervently devoted to losing as much as they can in the final two weeks of the season to try to snag the first overall pick.

That may make for compelling drama but it’s not great for the prospect of watching a game that pits one of this cohort against another — and that’s just what we have on Thursday night with this game between Tennessee and Jacksonville. These teams are not only bad but they’re not very entertaining either. Last week the Titans didn’t score a touchdown all game… and they were playing the also-bad New York Jets! The Jaguars managed to score 12 points last week, one more than the Titans, but also didn’t score a touchdown. They scored four field goals. On their way to doing that, they managed to allow their quarterback Blake Bortles to be sacked eight times and hit a total of 15 times. That’s not great for his long-term future and it’s not great for his prospects in this game, only four days later. Last week was no aberration either, these teams are used to not scoring many points — the Titans average 16.5 points per game and the Jaguars 15.1. Expect this game to be low scoring as well.

Fantasy Football, particularly this week when most fantasy leagues have their championship games, can make even the dullest of team football games exciting for viewers because of their allegiances to individual players. Honestly though, if you’re starting a player from either of these teams… you’re probably not in the championship game. CBS doesn’t have a single quarterback, wide receiver, or running back from this game ranked in the top twenty at their respective positions.

If I haven’t managed to convince you yet, I will leave you with this: this weekend is not only the last weekend before Christmas, it’s also overflowing with football. There are two NFL games on national television this Saturday: the Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins at 4:30 and the San Diego Chargers at San Francisco 49ers at 8:30. Those are not great games but they’re 1,000 times better than this one. Watch those if you want but do not watch this game between the Titans and Jaguars!

The top ten Christmas or holiday gifts for a sports fan

The Friday after Thanksgiving is infamously the first day of the holiday shopping season. Black Friday, as it’s called, is a time for sales of questionable worth and dangerous hordes of stampeding shoppers. The whole phenomenon is a funny one though, because by and large, the only people I know who actually get their holiday shopping done before the last minute are all people I would classify as being the least likely to riot over reduced-price electronics. Most of my friends are just rounding into shopping form now, with plenty of gifts left to buy before the 25th. Their motto (our motto, I suppose I should say,) is “if you leave it until the last minute, it only takes a minute.” Here are the top ten sports related gifts that I’ve reviewed over the last couple years. All are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of the sports fan in your life!

Bob Ryan’s Scribe

Bob Ryan

Bob Ryan is one of the best known and most respected sports writers in the country. He started as an intern at the Boston Globe in 1968 and retired from full-time work there in 2012 after 44 years as a beat writer and columnist. He is a Boston sports writer, through and through — never bothering to adopt the feigned objective neutrality of many journalists in sports. Although he is “retired” now, he remains almost as prolific as he ever has been and this book is proof of that.

Stadium prints

City Prints Michigan

We’re always on the look-out for tasteful ways to represent beloved sports teams in home decor. Items that fit this bill are worth their weight in, well, not gold at current prices, but aluminum at least. They give the sports fan in the household a way to express pride and love while simultaneously giving their family, partner, or housemates a chance to express their own tasteful sense of home propriety. The large selection of colorful stadium prints from City Prints fits the bill on every detail.

30 for 30 sports documentary box set

ESPN and Bill Simmons’ series of sports documentaries, released under the 30 for 30 brand name, have been home to many of the best sports documentaries of the last several years. Their model of targeting filmmakers from outside of the sports media conglomerate and then asking them to work on a subject of their choosing has produced some very interesting pieces. My favorites (Once Brothers, The Two Escobars, and June 17, 1994) from the series are all included in the box set of twelve films.

NBA player art

Everyplayerintheleague Steph Curry

Baseball is the sport of the trading card but that leaves some very interesting niches for other sports to fill in. Seattle-based illustrator Matthew Hollister decided to create player artwork for every basketball player in the NBA. He displays and sells these funky and attractive prints at his site, EveryPlayerInTheLeague.

The Stanley Cup of popcorn

This gift should be a perennial on every top ten list of gifts ever written. It’s hard to beat the combination of the Stanley Cup, the greatest and most desired trophy in all of sports, with the equally desirable delicious goodness of home-popped popcorn!

Baseballism shirts


The holidays are the perfect time to invest in some stylish, clever baseball apparel for yourself or for the baseball fan in your life. Baseballism is a great place to find baseball apparel that looks and feels good. Their style plays on the traditional aspects of baseball without taking on the conventional and a slightly ugly characteristics of old-school baseball uniforms.

 The Blind Side

A best selling book and Hollywood movie, Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side remains a classic and incredibly contemporary. On top of being a touching story and a great tactical history of football, The Blind Side, is an insightful, challenging book about America, one that has incisive insight into this fall’s cultural issues.

Baseball stadium prints


Not only are these minimalist baseball stadium prints by S. Preston great presents but they’re also a good defense against the fan in your life buying a regular sports poster to remember the season by; one that you will not want hung in your living room. A gift of one of these prints says, “I like how big of a fan you are and I support your team” without saying “let’s turn our house into a locker room.”

Rep your school this holiday season

Michigan Jello

For fans of college sports, December is not just the holiday season, it’s also the time when college football enters into its postseason bowl games and when college basketball starts its regular season in earnest. It’s a great time to pick up something sports related as a gift for yourself or the college sports fan in your life. Here’s a selection of college sports gifts that range the gamut from useful to kitschy.

Sports books for children

Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars

How better to pass on the gift of sports than to give a young sports fan a book that will spark their imagination and inspire them? Two of my childhood favorites, Freddy and the Baseball Team from Mars by Walter Brooks and Ice Magic by Matt Christopher are joined by three wonderful baseball books, Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh PiratesYou Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, and You Never Heard of Willie Mays?! by Jonah Winter.

Bonus: Who’s on first?

Holiday time is classics time in many households. It’s the perfect time to slip back into the wonderful nostalgia and legitimately great entertainment of the mid-twentieth century, back when men were real men, women were real women, and comedians were really funny. Whether it’s an introduction or a reprise for the fiftieth time, watching or listening to Abbott and Costello’s classic Who’s on First comedy bit is a great time. Celebrate the genius of their humor with this selection of Who’s on First memorabilia.

Do Not Watch This Game 11.22.14 Weekend Edition

For sports fans, the weekend is a cornucopia of wonderful games to watch. This is particularly true in the fall with its traditional pattern of College Football on Saturday and NFL Football on Sunday and Monday. As the parent, child, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, husband, wife, roommate, or best friend of a sports fan, this can be a challenge. It must be true that some games are more important to watch than others but it’s hard to know which is which. As a sports fan, the power of habit and hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars get in the way of remembering to take a break from sports and do something with your parent, child, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, husband, wife, roommate, or best friend. To aid all of us in this, and just because it’s fun, I’m going to write a weekly post highlighting a single game that is ideal for skipping. Use this to help tell yourself or someone else: “Do not watch this game!”

Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NFL Football, Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders. It’s on the NFL Network, but do not watch this game!

Some weeks, it’s difficult to write this post. After all, I am a big sports fan. I play fantasy football. I often say that I’m happy watching any kind of sporting event at all, and it’s true. I’ve got a long record of stopping on the sidewalk in New York to watch kids play basketball or handball. One of the elements of a trip in Europe I took last year which I loved was watching all the weird sports they televise out there in hotel rooms. Plus, I’m an optimistic guy — I always think the underdog has a chance to win. So, it’s sometimes tricky for me to pick a game to suggest skipping. The way I usually write the post is this. I head over to 506 Sports NFL maps to see which games are being televised when and to who. There’s no point in recommending that you skip one a game that only a small portion of the country could see anyway. For that reason, I look at the nationally televised NFL games first — Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights, and then if all of them are too good to miss, I look on Sunday afternoon to see if there is a relatively big game that’s worth looking twice at. I look at point spreads to find games that are unlikely to be close and read other people’s previews of the NFL to hear what they think of the weekend’s slate of games.

I didn’t have to do any of that this week. This week, the answer is so clear, it basically leaps up out of my laptop screen and slaps me in the face as if I’m in Monty Python and it’s a fish. The Thursday Night football game this week is absolutely not worth watching! I’m not even going to provide an alternative this week. If you’re a Raiders fan, then… I’m sorry but save yourself the heartache and do something else. If you’re a Chiefs fan, have some mercy. You don’t need to see your team blow the poor Raiders out of the water.

The Raiders are winless so far this season and they look suspiciously like they might end the year that way too. It’s not all bad for them, they’ve been starting a rookie quarterback, Derek Carr, who looks like he might be quite good at some point. After all, even great quarterbacks like Peyton Manning (who went 3-13 his rookie year) need some time to mature. The Raiders have also managed to keep a bunch of their games relatively close. They came within a touchdown of beating the Chargers last week. They stuck nicely with the Seahawks a few weeks ago as well as the Patriots in Week 3. The problem is, the Chiefs are not to be trifled with right now. After starting the season slowly, they’ve won five games in a row and seven of the last eight. They’re fourth in the league at running the ball, averaging over 140 yards per game at an average of almost five yards per rush. The Raiders are the sixth worst in the league at rush defense. Not a combination that’s going to make for a good game.

Look, I can’t lie to you. There’s a part of me that does want to watch this game. There’s a 99% chance that it’s going to be horribly lopsided, which means there’s a 1% chance that it’s going to be hysterical and exciting to watch the Raiders win. In some ways, that’s more fun than a game that’s 50/50. Still, if you want to skip a night of sports, this is a good one to skip. We’re about to enter a period of eight days with an extra full day of football (three games on Thanksgiving) so it’s probably a good idea to store up some non-football watching goodwill.

How does NBA TV fan night work?

While I was recording yesterday’s sports forecast podcast (say that ten times fast) I remarked that, opposed to the NHL’s national television schedulers, who chose a bummer of a game between the San Jose Sharks and the Buffalo Sabres, the NBA schedulers had gotten it exactly right by choosing the game between the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans. What a difference, I though, that the NBA somehow managed to figure out before the season that this would be a close game between two exciting young teams. And between two teams without much pedigree also. Man, those NBA schedulers are smart. I watched about ten minutes of the game last night and while I enjoyed the action, something was nagging me, tugging at the back of my mind. What was this addition to the NBA TV scoreboard graphic at the bottom of the screen? Why did it say “Fan Night” in big, bold letters? What about this made it more of a night for fans than any other night on NBA TV. So, I looked it up.

NBA TV Fan Night works like this. Each week, fans can vote on which game they want to see next week. The NBA provides three choices and the one that gets the most votes by Saturday of the previous week, is shown nationally on NBA TV that Tuesday. Yesterday’s game between the Pelicans and Kings beat out two other games: the New York Knicks at the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers at the Atlanta Hawks. This week, the race is between these three games: the Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards, the Golden State Warriors at the Miami Heat, and the Detroit Pistons at the Milwaukee Bucks. Right now the voting stands at 84% for the game between the Warriors and Heat, 10% for the Hawks and the Wizards, and only 6% for the Bucks and the Knicks.

This, for a few reasons, is pretty cool. First of all, I love the idea of allowing fans to control which games get nationally televised. After all, why shouldn’t the fans have a say? For big-time national television channels like ESPN, TNT, Fox, CBS, NBC, CBS, etc. they are always showing games televised with their own team of announcers, camera people, and producers. For them, it makes sense that you’d need to plan ahead for logistical reasons. But NBA TV, like similar networks for other leagues, often simply carries regional televised games on a national platform. It’s awesome that the NBA decided to let fans choose which games to see, at least one night a week. It’s also smart — the alternative is that more people will cut the cable cord and go full-time to watching games on the internet through services like NBA League Pass, NHL Game Center, etc. The leagues benefit from these sales but television is still far more lucrative. NBA TV Fan Night is also really great for two non-commercial reasons. One, I love seeing how the voting is going for next week. What a fun little game-without-the-game! Fans of the Hawks, Wizards, Bucks, and Kings should feel a little depressed that so few unaffiliated fans want to see their games. It’s kind of a diss, isn’t it? And fans of the Pelicans, Kings, Warriors, and Heat should feel great that people are catching on to how much fun their teams are to watch. I also particularly find it interesting, at least for these two weeks, how closely my instincts about what games would be interested are shared by the majority. What does that mean? Are we all a product of the sports-media hive mind? Or do we just know good basketball?

I’m going to keep my eye on this for the next few weeks and see if there are any close races or interesting conclusions to be drawn.

Do Not Watch This Game 11.15.14 Weekend Edition

For sports fans, the weekend is a cornucopia of wonderful games to watch. This is particularly true in the fall with its traditional pattern of College Football on Saturday and NFL Football on Sunday and Monday. As the parent, child, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, husband, wife, roommate, or best friend of a sports fan, this can be a challenge. It must be true that some games are more important to watch than others but it’s hard to know which is which. As a sports fan, the power of habit and hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars get in the way of remembering to take a break from sports and do something with your parent, child, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, husband, wife, roommate, or best friend. To aid all of us in this, and just because it’s fun, I’m going to write a weekly post highlighting a single game that is ideal for skipping. Use this to help tell yourself or someone else: “Do not watch this game!”

Monday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NFL Football, Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans. It’s on ESPN but do not watch this game!

Sports pundits never tire of telling you that the NFL is the most unpredictable professional sports league out there. “ANY GIVEN SUNDAY” they shout at each other on TV even though they’re seated mere feet from each other and mic’d with thousands of dollars worth of high-end audio technology. They’re right, of course, one of the reasons professional football is so exciting is that it is very difficult to predict what will happen over the course of a season. For one thing, the fact that teams only play sixteen times each year means that anyone trying to predict what will happen has a very small sample size to work with. Then there’s the sheer number of people on each team who have a major impact on the outcome of the game (~25 in football compared to 11 in soccer, 7 in basketball, or 1 in any baseball game involving Madison Bumgarner…) Add to that the revolving door created by constant injuries to major players, mix in the greater impact that coaches have on the game, and you end up with a truly unpredictable sport.

That said, the Titans have no chance to beat the Steelers on Monday. Look. I mean, of course they have some chance but it just doesn’t seem all that likely. The Steelers are a good team that’s prone to very bad losses. They provided the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with their only victory this year. Tennessee is better than Tampa Bay but their timing is not nearly as good. Because, you see, the Steelers just had one of those bad losses last weekend when they lost 20-13 to the blundering New York Jets. Following losses this year, the Steelers are 3-0. Again, a very small sample, especially for a team that wins most of its games, but it’s a little more compelling when compared to the Titans record after losses this year: 1-5. All but three of the Titans games this year have been after a loss… because they’ve lost almost all their games.

Quarterback is the most important position in football and often a good short-hand for figuring out if a game is worth watching. The Steelers quarterback is a two time pro-bowler, Ben Roethlisberger, having one of the best years of his career. The Titans quarterback is a dude named Zach Mettenberger, known in part for posting and then being taunted for having posted a selfie before his first start this year. He’s started exactly as many games in his careers as Roethlisberger has won Super Bowls —  2. Honestly, the best part of this game was probably what NBC Pro Football Talk covered in their article on the game: an NFL record will be set on Monday for the two starting NFL quarterbacks with the longest combined last names. Roethlisberger-Mettenberger is quite a mouthful!

If you or the sports fan in your life is a fan of Pittsburgh or Tennessee, this is probably not the game to skip. Why not take a break from football on Saturday when the Florida State Seminoles play the Miami Hurricanes? I know it’s a rivalry game but Florida State has won the last four games and are almost definitely going to win this one too. That’s an eternity in college football.

Deciphering TV Graphics: Fox and CBS NFL Football

Sports is no fun when you don’t know what’s going on. That’s never more true than when a beginner sports fan sits down to watch football with a bunch of die-hards. One of the constant challenges in that scenario are the television graphics that overlay the football game. Every network has a different way of displaying information to the viewer. These graphics are packed with information and mostly well designed but they are never explained. Networks simply assume that viewers will be able to decipher the TV graphics for themselves. Most long-time football fans can but for casual fans, it’s just one more artifact that makes getting into the sport difficult. That’s not how it should be! I took screenshots of the Fox and CBS NFL Football TV graphics so that I could explain them in detail. Both graphics show exactly the same set of information but they arrange it in different ways. I’ll do the other two NFL stations next week and more sports later. Send me an email at dearsportsfan@gmail.com or leave a comment if you have a particularly problematic graphic for me to unravel.

What information is encoded in these TV graphics?


Possession is simply which team has the ball at the moment. This is one of the harder things to discern from the graphics. Fox uses a yellow bar which is easy to miss and looks a little like the timeout counter. CBS uses a small white dot next to the name of the team that has the ball.


The score should be one of the easiest things to see from the graphic and indeed, it is. Fox does a better job of this by making the score by far the biggest numbers out there. CBS’s score is only marginally bigger than the other numbers on its graphic.

Timeouts remaining

Each team gets three timeouts per half. Fox and CBS both show the number of time outs remaining by using yellow bars. In our screen captures, both teams have three time outs remaining in both games.


Pretty intuitive, this is just which quarter the game is currently in. Since quarters range from 1st to 4th and so do downs, it’s better to have the quarter close to the time remaining and far from the down and distance. I like CBS’ approach to displaying the quarter better than Fox’s.

Time left in quarter

NFL games are organized into four quarters of 15 minutes each. Like basketball and hockey, the clock counts down from 15 as opposed to soccer which counts up to 90.

Down and distance

Down and distance are football shorthand to express the situation of the game. Which of the four chances a team has to move the ball ten yards are they on and how far do they have left to travel? I wrote a whole post on this which I recommend if you, like the person who asked me this question, have always wanted to know what down and distance were but were afraid to ask.

Play time left on clock

Teams with the ball have forty seconds from the end of one play to start running another. This is an important tactical factor because teams can stretch out the time between plays if they are ahead or rush them if they are behind. A penalty is assessed for letting the play clock run out without running a play. For viewers it can also tell them when to look up from whatever else they’re doing so they don’t miss a play.

Got it, let’s see the graphics

CBS Sports Football Graphic

Fox Sports Football Graphic

Do Not Watch This Game 10.10.14 Weekend Edition

For sports fans, the weekend is a cornucopia of wonderful games to watch. This is particularly true in the fall with its traditional pattern of College Football on Saturday and NFL Football on Sunday and Monday. As the parent, child, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, husband, wife, roommate, or best friend of a sports fan, this can be a challenge. It must be true that some games are more important to watch than others but it’s hard to know which is which. As a sports fan, the power of habit and hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars get in the way of remembering to take a break from sports and do something with your parent, child, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, husband, wife, roommate, or best friend. To aid all of us in this, and just because it’s fun, I’m going to write a weekly post highlighting a single game that is ideal for skipping. Use this to help tell yourself or someone else: “Do not watch this game!”

Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NFL Football, St. Louis Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers. It’s on ESPN but do not watch this game!

This looks like it should be a good game. Both teams are in the NFC West, which was, by consensus, thought of as the best division in the NFL after last season. Last year, the four teams in the division combined for a 42-22 record last year and if you exclude the games they played against one another, that record improves to 30-10. The 49ers made it to the semifinals last year where they lost to division rival and eventual champion, Seattle. The fourth member of the division, the Arizona Cardinals, just barely missed out on the playoffs but had a 10-6 record. The Rams were the only team in the division last year not to make the playoffs and to have a losing record at 7-9 but we’re widely said to have been “stronger” than their record.

So, why wouldn’t this game be appointment television? Well, for one, things change fast in the NFL. The teams aren’t as strong as they were last year. The Rams lost their starting quarterback to a season ending injury in the pre-season. They’re playing pretty well on offense behind first-time starter Austin Davis but their defense has basically collapsed. They are allowing an average of almost 30 points per game which is third worst in the league. This won’t help make the game more exciting because even last year, games between these two teams weren’t that close. The 49ers beat the Rams by 10 and 24 points last year.

Last, and this is oddly important to me and other sports fans, this game just doesn’t have many potentially fun story-lines regardless of its outcome. A 49ers victory would engender basically no story at all. They are expected to win. A Rams win would only fuel the prevailing “What’s wrong with the 49ers?” story which, so far, has been answered with a chorus of “they hate their coach.” Teams hate their coaches all the time, it’s not that interesting.

Alternate: If you or the sports fan in your life is a fan of one of these two teams, then this isn’t a good game to skip. Instead, skip the CBS early game at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon between the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets unless you enjoy watching a finely tuned piece of machinery cut through a confused mess.

I don't always watch sports, but when I do, I prefer contrasts

Vamping on the great Dos Equis commercials that feature the “Most Interesting Man in the World” claiming, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis,” I don’t always watch sports, but when I do, I prefer contrasts. I think many sports fans are like this. I’d rather watch a great defense play against a great offense than watch two great offenses score mounds of points on each other or two great defenses circle each other cautiously. In boxing, I’d rather watch a hot-headed slugger face off against a tactically sound boxer. In baseball, I want to see if a great pitcher can throw his way through a murderer’s row of hitters or whether they tire him down. Even in individual sports like downhill skiing or golf, it’s more compelling if you can watch people approach the puzzle of winning in different ways. There are two sporting events tonight that promise big contrasts in style and I am looking forward to catching at least part of both of them. I’ll lay out the contrasts in this post, tell me if you watch and if so, whether you see and enjoy the contrasts I describe.

Cool vs. Hot at the U.S. Open

Tennis is perhaps the most psychologically difficult sport because its players are alone on the court for up to five hours. In major tournaments like the U.S. Open, they aren’t even allowed to speak to their coaches. To win a tennis match, men (women play only three sets) need to win three sets out of five. To win a set, they need to be the first to win six by two games or win in a tie-break. Games require them to get to four points but they have to win by two. In matches between players of relatively equal skill, temperament or injury almost always mean the difference between winning and losing.

Roger Federer’s name is all over the record books but perhaps his most impressive record is that he was ranked number one in the world for 237 weeks in a row. This record expresses his nature. He is cool. He doesn’t get ruffled. His movements are smooth, graceful, and efficient. He never looks like he’s trying that hard or, frankly, that he’s physically strong enough to keep up with his opponent. All of this explains, in part, how Federer can still be playing at such a high level at 33, an age at which most tennis players’ physical skills have degraded to the point that they cannot keep up anymore.

Gael Monfils looks like the member of a tennis playing species
Gael Monfils looks like the member of a tennis playing species

Federer’s opponent is the exact opposite. Gael Monfils is a physical freak. Federer looks like a robot programmed to play tennis. Monfils looks like a species genetically designed to play tennis. He’s tall, incredibly muscular, and flexible. His springs around the court like a modern dancer — never quite centered but never out of balance either. If it weren’t for his temperament, he’d probably be completely unbeatable. As it is, he spends a lot of time self-destructing on tennis courts. He screams at himself, gives up, tries again, gives up again. He can’t seem to help being a showman. The more important the moment is, the less he seems to be able to help leaping into shots or trying to hit the ball between his legs. The most dominant he’s ever looked on a tennis court was a rain delay dance competition at the French Open:

At least until this U.S. Open, in which Monfils, playing without a coach, hasn’t lost a single set. Monfils remains as compelling as he is confusing.

I have to admit, I kind of love both these players. I can’t help but root for old-age and treachery to win out over youth and vigor, so I want Federer to win. Meanwhile, Monfils’ unpredictability and pathos make me love him, and he just looks like he’s having more fun when he’s having fun out there than anyone else.  We’ll see what happens tonight around 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Defense vs. Offense to Start the NFL Season

The first NFL game is a celebration and would be must watch TV for sports fans no matter who was playing. That said, tonight’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers provides a great contrast in everything but color. The Seahawks have the best defense in the league, with big, fast, and brash defenders flying all over the place, hitting anything that moves. The Packers offense has been in the top third of the league in scoring for the last five years. The Packers have a well established star at quarterback who leads an offense based on quick throws and immaculate timing. The Seahawks specialize in messing up offensive timing by hitting receivers (legally or illegally) at the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks offense tries to pound their opponents into the ground with powerful running attacks. The Packers defense was, well, frankly bad last year.

The only similarities between these teams is that they are both good, they both think they have a chance to win the Super Bowl this year, and they both wear green. See what happens at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

Football is Coming

Football is coming. As inevitable as winter in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, college and NFL football is rapidly approaching and when it does, it’s going to wipe every other topic in sports off the landscape. Already it’s beginning to dominate. The first two stories of my favorite show in the genre of sports guys yelling at each other, Pardon the Interruption, were about NFL football. Four of ESPN’s top eleven stories right now are about football. At si.com it’s seven of fifteen. Fantasy football preview magazines fill the newsstands as passionate owners begin their preparation for the upcoming season. If you don’t believe me, there’s even a website, howmanydaystillfootball.com that just lists how many days till football there are. Football is coming.

Football is coming and I have mixed feelings about it. I love football. It’s not a sport I grew up with but it’s become one of my favorite to watch. I once answered a friend who asked, “Why Do People Like Football?” and I listed a bunch of reasons. Among them were the fascinating tactics, the obscure technicalities that are so much fun to argue about, the crazy athleticism of its players, and even the violence. I also listed “fantasy football” and “sitting on the couch” in the list. Here’s what I had to say about them:

  • Fantasy Football — A subset of gambling, fantasy football has taken off in the last five years in a crazy way. Around twenty million people now play fantasy football, there’s a half hour television show on ESPN dedicated to fantasy football owners and our own blog has already had a fantasy football post!

  • Sitting on the Couch — There’s really nothing better than sitting down on the couch on Sunday knowing that you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything for the rest of the day. The mid-afternoon football induced slumber is also a glorious feature of the sport.

It’s these two factors that I feel the most divided about. It’s not that I don’t love playing fantasy. I do. I’m even messing around with my own idea of an innovative new fantasy game, but more on that another time. And you know I like sitting on the couch. I’m doing it right now! It’s just that I don’t love the extent of the power football has over me. I enjoy watching other sports. The recent World Cup was so much fun and it didn’t dominate my life the way the NFL can. I enjoy reading and seeing friends and family outside of the context of sports. I’ve been enjoying listening to non-sports podcasts on my commute, like This American Life, Risk!, and Ask Me Another. I like traveling on weekends without fighting off the urge (or giving in, more likely) to compulsively check my phone. Most of all, I like having my brain free from thinking about how to win at fantasy football so it can think about what moves to make next in my career or how to be a good friend, partner, brother, son, and grandson.

So this year, when football swarms over the landscape like the zombie populated winter storm in Game of Thrones, I’m going to weather it more gracefully than before. Maybe I’ll plan a few weekends of travel now so I lock myself into not watching every weekend. Maybe I’ll do a better job picking and choosing only the games I think are legitimately interesting each week to watch. Maybe I’ll go out more to watch with friends instead of hiding in my living room. Football is coming and I can’t wait, I just want to find a way to savor it without letting it sabotage me.