The death of Steve Sabol this week marks the end of an era in the game of football. What Steve and his father, Ed, did when they established NFL Films was to fashion a uniquely artistic vision for the game.
Prior to the product of NFL Films, professional football was rarely appreciated as anything more than a brute force spectator sport, sort of like boxing in gangs.
Many who played it understood the game could be much more than that; that there was an intellectual and often graceful design and flow to it. As my father once showed me, it is chess with real men, only they all move at once and you reset the pieces after each move. The fact that it is also part gladiator contest didn’t hurt either.
What the Sabols did was then take that vision (or at least one kin to it) and create filmed orchestrations that made the game seem so much more attractive, stylized, intricate, and powerful. Instead of big guys pounding away or running away half way across a field from where you stood, you could now see them in detail.
You could appreciate a 40-yard spiral floating in space, running backs jousting through moving gaps, gazelle-like receivers gliding, Jim Brown pulverizing, Butkus-Nitschke-Lambert snarling and spewing, all set to thrilling yet catchy music and narrated with the most sonorous of voices. The game became epic, and it only took about 30 minutes to watch. Their highly stylized approach changed the public perspective from that of a game being played into one of a performance being presented.
What fantasy leagues have done to the game in the wired era, NFL Films accomplished for the nascent video age. They made the game attractive to a whole generation of people who otherwise might never have caught the fever.
Their packages of highlight reels built a level of excitement and anticipation in their audience for the NFL’s product, presenting a vision of events and actions that were weeks or months (and now years) old.
It’s hard to put into words what NFL Films has always done best. It’s more than documentary filmmaking. In many ways their archive is an exposition on American culture and character over the past 50 years.
Ed and Steve opened up the game for a new audience. Many of us now gliding so effortlessly into middle age have learned much about the game as it was captured by their cameras. Those films had the added advantage of delivering the action in an edited format just perfect for the Cliff Notes generation.
For example, when I was about 6 or 8 years old I could not sit still long enough to watch a whole game. I wouldn’t even watch a high school game. I’d surely go, but then all us kids would wind up playing with one of those little rubber balls down behind one of the end zones or in the back of the bleachers at Huff Park. (The end zones were better because there was almost no light behind the bleachers, and those big gravels were murder on the knees!)
Since the Sabols merged their shop and became an official division of the league, the NFL Films product has become rather homogenized now. Ed’s 96 and had left the family trade in his son’s capable hands, but the brain cancer that took Steve this week robbed the rest of us as well. I’m afraid we’ll not see their like again, so as a big fan I mourn the loss.
This week’s picks had better turn around or I’m going to have to return my Writer’s Guild card. After two weeks my prediction record stands at 15-17, which means that more than half the time I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m talking about.
(I’ve got more than a few relatives who will tell you that’s just about right.)
Giants at Panthers – This week’s Thursday night NFL Network presentation should be another potential rafter-raiser. (Do they even have those in stadiums now?) New York’s defense is struggling much more than it should, but they are usually slow starters, those guys. Cam Newton presents some difficult match up problems because you have to account for his serious rushing ability.
Eli continues his borderline miracle-working ways, but this time his defense gives up too many points for his magical arm to pull another rabbit out of the W hat.
Bills at Browns – After week two fans in Buffalo and Cleveland have collectively said, “Now that’s more like it!” and I agree. If one chose the glass-half-empty approach, this contest could be a referendum on the league’s policy of parity, seeing as how it’s been more than a dozen years since either of these two franchises was competitive. (Poor management cancels out high draft picks.) The eye that sees the glass as half-full believes more in the now of two strong running attacks, coupled with smart, experienced quarterbacks (who’ve had a bit of a slow start) are going to continue their upward climb into league respectability.
I really hate to see Cleveland wind up 0-3 to start another season, but life’s just not fair in oh-so-many ways. Close, but I still like the Bills even after they thoroughly botched it in week one.
Jaguars at Colts – Blaine Gabbert has reverted toward putrid again and stout defense has a way of doing that. Indy’s defensive line is still good at bringing the pressure and Gabbert’s not at his best when forced to play by instinct. If Maurice Jones-Drew has a somewhat overdue breakout game then all bets are off, but that kind of chance hangs out in the lobby with the long odds and that’s a strange group to have to deal with. Give me more of the standard Luck package, sure and steady and getting better every day.
Chiefs at Saints – Call this desperation day in New Orleans because both teams are staring blankly into the abyss of 0-3. It’s not a pretty view. The Saints remind me of the story of the battleship Bismarck, the terror of the high seas until its rudder was shot off. Then it was another fifty years before it was even seen again, and then only by special equipment under heavy pressure. Nautically speaking, I don’t know what Kansas City reminds me of. At first I thought of McHale’s Navy, but they were supremely competent slackers. The Chiefs are not competent and I’m ashamed to have thought they were. The real shame of 0-3 goes around Romeo Crennel’s neck and it’s probably going to drag him down quick. Surely his fellow grads of Western Kentucky University deserve a better week than that from him. That red fish is swimming too deep for my rod.