Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"What, Me Worry?"

Super Bowl, anyone?

There's a lot of anticipation building up toward Sunday's Ultimate Game, and we're not simply talking about the usual Super Bowl hype that draws reporters from as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Helsinki to view and critique this most American spectacle of grand excess. It's not really on the scale of those occasional "Clash of the Titans" marquee matchups, as some of us remember from Super Bowls XIII, XVIII, XIX, and even XLIV. These two teams were not the season-long Inevitables cruising toward a February showdown; most of the time that kind of talk was reserved for the Houstons, New Englands, Atlantas, and Green Bays. No, this one is drawing its share of Learned Comments from players and coaches, current and former, who are somewhat quietly anticipating a "purist's" kind of game, a slightly-under-the-radar classic-in-the-making that may not get its full due until years from now.

It's only the second time that both losing teams from the previous year's conference championships have met in the Super Bowl (XXX, Dallas-Pittsburgh, was the other).  Both teams are well-coached, and of course, the "Brother Bowl"/"HarBowl"/"SupeHar Bowl" story  has already been sighted, scoped, tracked, catched, tetched,  fetched, and barbecued from hell to breakfast, as our high-school football coach used to say. Endless other "angles" abound, from the great Ray Lewis' impending retirement to Joe Flacco's emergence as an elite quarterback, from the impossibility (impossibility?) of anyone containing both Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore running the ball, to the predictive value, if any, of last season's 16-6 Thanksgiving night battle won by the Ravens.

But for us, today, the overriding story is an unfamiliar one-- the very real possibility that the San Francisco 49ers might actually be in danger of losing a Super Bowl.  Like, what kind of weirdness is this? The 49ers' Super Bowl record is the Gold Standard of the NFL: five trips to the Big Game, five world championships. No losses. Only one game that even looked like it might be a loss (XXIII). Three epic blowouts. Oh, we know, the Pittsburgh Steelers have more rings, but they've also been beaten twice. Nobody else has 5-0, or anything close to it. Shoot, the 49ers are the only team with more than one Super Bowl win that hasn't also lost at least one 'Bowl. So, since when do we worry about Super Bowls?

Since about nine days ago, actually, to tell the truth. Baltimore is a team that has been built purposefully, step by step, to reach this level, and over the last five years no other team has won with their steady, implacable consistency: from wild-card to division champion, from runner-up to the Super Bowl.  Talk about a five-year plan. Almost every key Raven has been along for the entire ride; there's a definite sense of continuity, not to say momentum, building up around this team. It's not just in the way they play, not just in their talent level, not just in their accomplishments or their coaching, but in everything they do the Ravens present a most formidable opponent. We compare  the desperately brilliant last-minute comeback and overtime win at Denver-- a game almost any other team would have lost-- to the calm, even arrogant manner in which they took control and smothered New England a week later, and we see a team that can win any kind of game, played at any kind of pace, under any circumstance. No matter what happens, no one can say, as we have in previous seasons, that the "real Super Bowl" was won back in Atlanta.  No, sir. To win this one the 49ers are going to have to play their best game to date.

That has rarely been the case. The last two 49er Super Bowl wins (XXIV and XXIX) were cakewalks, both games essentially over in the first quarter. (In truth, Super Bowl XXIX was over as soon as the Niners won the coin toss and elected to receive.)  And there was little drama leading up to those games. In 1989, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen actually had to defend his public comment that he thought his team would win (Heaven knows, rich-guy owners are easy targets for ridicule, but what else was he gonna say?).  And when the 49ers were rated 21-point favorites over San Diego five years later, few, even in the media, were willing to offer up, say, the '68 Colts as counter-example.

The one time the 49ers  nearly got ambushed in the midst of overconfidence (the fans' and media's, we hasten to add, not their own) was in the aforementioned Super Bowl XXIII. After they'd gone and pounded the Chicago Bears into the frozen turf of Soldier Field, few were willing to believe they'd have much trouble with Sam Wyche's Bengals-- that is, until the game started. As it happened, Cincinnati was actually one additional first down away from holding the ball until time ran out and escaping with a 16-13 upset. Instead they surrendered the ball-- and, eventually, the lead and the game-- to Joe Montana with three minutes left.

Now, as for that first Super Bowl, XVI, also against Cincinnati, in the magic season of 1981-- well, after "The Catch" we were so absolutely convinced the 49ers were the 'Team of Destiny', we knew they'd win that game no matter what, even if the Lord Himself had to send an earthquake to tip the field in our favor. Despite the misleadingly close score, the 49ers never even trailed in that Super Bowl.      

So the only comparator to this feeling of pregame uncertainty dates back to January of 1985, when Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins came swaggering into Stanford Stadium for Super Bowl XIX.  Though the 49ers were made three-point favorites in that game (even as they are favored by four this Sunday), you'd have had a hard time convincing most people that was the case. Marino and his 55 touchdown passes were hailed as the harbinger of a new NFL standard, and even such staid, low-key observers as Chuck Noll and Tom Landry were positively gushing over the "unstoppable" Miami offense like teenyboppers at a Justin Bieber meet-'n'-greet.  It was jarring enough to affect even our unruly group as we tried to push our way into a crowded North Beach restaurant the night before the game. We were surrounded by a sea of teal and orange; loud, polyester-clad Dolphin fans on the sidewalk, serenading us with barbed comments about the 49ers' pathetically easy schedule, how the Steeler team which beat us at home had just surrendered 45 points to Marino, and how "games are won and lost in the trenches" and the Miami offensive line had allowed the fewest sacks in the league.

It was a surly evening, as we recall, and although we told ourselves we knew better, none of us could entirely escape the doubts and fears bubbling up from the old subconscious. It wasn't until midway through the second quarter the next day that we realized how foolishly we'd acted, how ridiculously weak our confidence had been, and how little we had learned to appreciate the skill, intelligence, and overall capability of one of the NFL's greatest teams and organizations ever. You all know the rest.

The 49ers have the better team in this tilt. Not by a lot, but by enough. That 2011 Thanksgiving loss turned on a relentlessly blitzing Baltimore defense, and on a bad chop-block call which negated a touchdown. There is no way the Ravens can win this time by blitzing on every down, given Colin Kaepernick's abilities, but without steady pass pressure they can't win either. Absent several turnovers or a truly wretched day from David Akers, the 49ers should be in control of this game midway through the fourth quarter. Flacco is likely to throw the deep ball early, and it's not at all inconceivable he might pull a "Matt Ryan" and pass for a whole lot of yards, but points figure to be much harder to come by. Expect Akers to be a non-factor, and look for the 49ers to separate from the Ravens by a touchdown or two over a field goal or two, on the order of  14-10 or 24-16 or thereabouts.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

"City of Champions"

It's one of the rarest phenomena in professional sports.

It's only happened eight times.

It happened in Baltimore in 1970. In Pittsburgh in 1979, the title of this screed was coined when it happened there.  Most recently, it happened in Boston in 2004 (and the media hangover is only now subsiding). It even happened in Detroit, back in 1935. And, of course, it has happened four times in New York City: in 1927, in 1938, in 1956, and in 1986 (that is, if you count East Rutherford, N.J., as "New York City").  Now, if all goes well at the Louisiana Superdome on February 3 upcoming, it will happen in San Francisco.

Simultaneously, the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers will both, at the same time, be the reigning world champions in America's two premier sports.

We've only waited 48 years for this.

As far as we know, there is no official name for such a rare event. Our own ideas-- "The Clean Sweep," "The Two Titles," "The Daily (daily?) Double"-- have met with deserved ridicule or, perhaps more accurately, utter indifference. So "City of Champions" it is. It's cool, it's extremely rare, and it can be ours if Our Boys come through.

O San Francisco, didn't we come so close in 1989? The 49ers were in their glory, sweeping to a second straight Super Bowl title. Unfortunately our Giants, after a thrilling regular season and a sensational NLCS,  became engaged on the business end of a different kind of "sweeping" and thus fell short. (About the only positive thing that can be said about the Loma Prieta earthquake is that it made everybody forget about the World Series. And no, the fact that is was Oakland who won that Series, right across the bay, does not change a thing. It wasn't The City, so it doesn't count, and you all know how we feel about asterisks.)

Other towns have taken a shot and fallen just short. The 1980 Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series, and the 1980 Eagles reached the Super Bowl-- but lost to the Raiders. In 1954, the NFL champion Cleveland Browns were not joined by the Cleveland Indians, thanks to Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.  Had David Tyree not made that helmet-top catch in Super Bowl XLIII, Boston would've had another 'twofer' to brag about in 2007, given the Red Sox' autumn success. The Oakland Raiders from 1972-1974 were in the hunt every year but always one game short, while their Coliseum roommates, the A's, were winning three straight World Series. Had Allie Sherman's New York Football Giants been able to win the Big One back in the early sixties, the Big Apple would have a few more of these to lord over everybody. Even those lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, had a chance (well, a sporting chance, anyway) in the '32 World Series, given that the Bears would win the NFL that year with a 7-1-6 mark. (Yes, that's six ties, sports fans.)

Strangely enough, probably the best known pairing of all is a combo-that-wasn't--  the New York Jets and New York Mets from 1969. Truth is, the Jets won the Super Bowl in the 1968 season, in which the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. That the world championship for 1968 was played on January 12, 1969 might be of interest to sports-based hemerologists, but in and of itself changes nothing. The Jets and Mets were champions in back-to-back seasons, not the same season, with the added fillip of both clubs beating heavily-favored teams from Baltimore.  As a consolation prize, we will note that in 2006, all four New York sports teams-- Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets-- made their respective postseason tournaments, which has to count as some sort of record.

So perhaps one day soon in The City, we'll see Jim Harbaugh and  Bruce Bochy (and how's that for an unlikely pairing) share the same podium at the same celebration. If it happens, it'll have been a long time coming, and history tells us it will be a long time gone.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


If you're a 49er fan of a certain age, that term is fondly tucked away in your memory. Cooked up by the team's publicity department prior to the 1980 season, it took most of a year to marinate before the rest of the world got a real good taste (see above).  And there were certainly ups and downs along the way. We remember a day at Candlestick in October of 1980, in the middle of what turned out to be an eight-game losing streak, where a large banner stretched across the wall of the north end zone read, "ROAR FORWARD NOT BACKWARD!"

Well, "roaring back" is exactly what the 49ers did at the Georgia Dome Sunday afternoon last, and the end result is that Colin Kaepernick's tenth start for the team will be in Super Bowl XLVII. And yes, we love young "Kap" and the tremendous ability he brings to the game, but to focus excessively on him and what he can do would be to make the same mistake the Atlanta Falcons made that day. And look where it got them.

Y'all know about 'deja vu', but how about 'presque vu'?  We get that on occasion, and we got it a few minutes into Sunday's tilt as Matt Ryan capably and confidently passed his Falcons up to midfield. As the teams walked back to the huddle and we pondered why 'Matty Ice' was getting all day to throw, in our mind's eye we saw, plain as day, Julio Jones wide open and hauling in a perfect rainbow pass, over-the-shoulder for a long touchdown. We kept silent, so as not to disturb the fainthearted, and were not at all surprised when about a hundred seconds later, Ryan and Jones connected on exactly such a play for the signature touchdown of Atlanta's early 17-0 barrage.

It also reminded us, unaccountably or so it seemed, of another championship-game-opening stunner of a touchdown bomb-- that 65-yard strike from Steve Young to Jerry Rice in the 1992 NFC title game against Dallas. Don't bother looking for it in the game stats-- the play was called back due to a holding penalty, and thus had no lasting impact on the game. Though few would have called it at the time, the Ryan-Jones hookup, real as it was, had ultimately the same effect. Look elsewhere for back-breaking plays, because despite their chronic issues with pass coverage against the big Atlanta receivers, the 49er defenders kept their heads, continued with their physical style of play, and finally won the battle.

How many would have figured Ryan would pass for almost 400 yards and his team still lose? We predicted three things would happen in this game: the 49ers would outrush the Falcons, Kaepernick would match Ryan in passing yards, and Ryan would throw one more interception than would CK. Well, two out of three ain't bad, and we hope Ryan will get some much-needed respect for, among other things, giving his team a real chance to come back themselves and win at the very end.  But the 49ers seized this victory thanks to a patient coaching staff, a tremendous offensive line, and a defense that, despite its issues, held that excellent Falcon team scoreless over the final thirty minutes.

Sure, you could also say the 49ers were handed this game thanks to a butterfingered quarterback and a receiver who fell down at the worst possible time, but that's sour grapes. A goal-line fumble and a missed chip-shot field goal more than make up for those lapses, and Douglas didn't catch that ball anyway. Besides, Crabtree's fumble just inches from a go-ahead score led to the key series of the game-- the Falcons' subsequent three-and-out, followed by Ted Ginn's great punt return, followed by that punishing, run-heavy drive that ended with Frank Gore's second TD. Five minutes ran off the clock between fumble and score, five minutes which left Atlanta with only one chance to get the lead back. Fourteen plays, 70 yards, and seven minutes later, it was over-- the 49ers' first postseason road win since January 1989.      

Conference championship games have not been noted for big comebacks. Typically they fall into two categories: back-and-forth battles that go down to the final seconds, or whistle-to-whistle domination of one team by the other. There are a few exceptions: Joe Montana's brilliant-but-doomed 21-point rally in the 1983 NFC showdown at Washington, Bernie Kosar and the Browns rallying from 18 points down in 1987 and then betrayed by "The Fumble," even Troy Aikman passing Dallas over Green Bay in the final minutes of the 1995 game. But the closest match to this one is, of course, the Indianapolis Colts' 38-34 victory over New England in 2006, with Peyton Manning rallying his team from a 21-6 halftime deficit to beat Tom Brady & Co. for the AFC crown. The 49ers' 28-7 comeback now has officially topped that one for the best in conference championship history, and if you're thinking Kaepernick-versus-Ryan lacks the gravitas of Manning-Brady, well, it may only be a matter of time.We see every chance for these two teams, and these two quarterbacks, to battle it out for NFC supremacy over the remainder of this decade. The great game we just saw may be only the beginning of a great rivalry.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Falcon and the Snowjob

Oh, it was a conundrum, all right, watching that Atlanta-Seattle game on Sunday and not knowing which way to lean. (I can't stand the Seahawks, they make me sick. And scared. Don't wanna play 'em again on any field, even our own field.)  Mike Smith's Falcons are the "Rodney Dangerfield" of the NFL: no respect, no respect at all, I'm tellin' yuh. ("Last week I went into the hardware store for a box of rat poison. The girl at the counter said, 'You want me to wrap that up or are you gonna eat it here?'  I don't get no respect!") The consensus commentary from the cognoscenti has been, "Yeah, best record in the league, sure, but, hey, they can be taken." (And if we didn't agree they could be taken, why are we even here?)  The Falcons opened the game as though they had a personal score to settle with every single doubting mind out there; for most of three quarters it was, "Well, (gulp), looks like we're going to, uh, Atlanta next week, huh?" The game achieved a serene, almost somnambulant pace in the third quarter, with the score 20-0; we drowsily settled back into the recliner and woke some time later to cries of alarm: no, the house wasn't under attack, but the Seahawks were on the march! On they came, to the tune of three unanswered fourth-quarter touchdowns, seemingly unstoppable. (Okay, I give! I can't take this anymore. Anybody but Seattle!) Atlanta hadn't seen the like since Sherman. (Who, Richard Sherman? No, it's this Wilson guy I'm worried about!)    

Well, we all know what happened. Seattle won the game when, after that brilliant comeback, their fading defense managed to tackle Tony Gonzalez just short of chip-shot field-goal range and Matt Bryant's last-second kick went wide right. What do you mean, it--  oh, yes, we forgot. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called time-out just before Bryant launched his errant kick, and given the reprieve, the veteran kicker drilled a perfect one right down the pike and poof-- Cinderella's carriage turned into a pumpkin, Seattle's season ended with a thud, and the NFC Championship Game will be played at the Georgia Dome, not Candlestick Park, this coming Sunday.

From a 49er perspective, does it matter? Is it boon or bane, advantage or disadvantage? Would we rather play the league's hottest team ("Nobody wants to face these guys in the playoffs!") on our home field, where we beat them back before they uncorked all this late-season 'mojo', or would we rather face the Dangerfields on the road? Well, some of Jim Harbaugh's most signal victories as coach have come in big road games, haven't they? And the people who do this sort of thing have voted with their dollars and made the Niners a four-point favorite-- and when was the last time the road team was favored in a conference championship game, anyway?

If you're a superstitious sort and a 49er fan, this week must feel like a vacation in Purgatory. Hot off the presses is the Sports Illustrated cover, featuring a dashing Colin Kaepernick being urged on by the perpetually-intense Harbaugh. Not since Steve Young rumbled, bumbled, and stumbled 49 yards to a touchdown against Minnesota back in 1988 (and we were there, football fans) has a run by an NFL quarterback so captured the imagination. Kaepernick's thrilling 56-yard burst against the Packers Saturday night, which really and truly decided the game, was different because nobody even breathed on him, let alone touched him. It was a signature play, the kind of moment that can define a player's career no matter what else he may do.  San Francisco fans have had more than their share of these moments, so what do we call this one? "The Run?"  "Harbaugh's Reward?" "The Spread-Option Speck-tackular?" Perhaps someone out there can do better.

It was only about fifteen months ago that some were anointing the Green Bay Packers, undefeated at the time, as one of the greatest teams ever. We noted then that while Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers, and his powerful receiving corps were a scoring machine of perhaps historic proportion, no team with a defense as shaky as Green Bay's ever deserved such an honorarium. It appears little has changed. While adept at generating turnovers and scoring unexpected touchdowns, the Packer defense also is prone to being beaten physically at the line of scrimmage and consistently being a step late in coverage. We saw all this Saturday night. After the opening interception-runback was out of the way, the 49er offensive line slowly but deliberately took control of the game, until by the fourth quarter it was a borderline rout. The final tally was 579 total yards, 29 first downs, and one of the most mind-roasting stats of all: 323 rushing yards in a playoff game. What is this, 1934 or something?

We're not going to see those totals this Sunday. But we are likely to see them in proportion. The 49ers will outrush the Falcons. Kaepernick will match Matt Ryan's passing yardage and throw one less interception. There will be at least one critical fourth-quarter sack that kills an Atlanta drive. Cut the overall offensive totals by about one-third and you've got a 28-17  49er victory.

Notes from a most entertaining weekend:

Will the ridiculous notion of trying to "ice" the kicker finally meet its appropriate death after Carroll's blunder last week? The same bonehead move cost Miami a game earlier this year as well.  Now, we have nothing but affection for Pete Carroll: he's a Marin county native (Redwood High), he was on a short list of 49er coaching candidates in '97, he spectacularly revived a historic college football program at USC (NCAA sanctions: bleagh), and he's made his third NFL time a charm, even if we loathe his team. Carroll is too smart to believe that "icing" the kicker really works; he was just trying to evade the endless second-guessing that would have fallen his way had he not called the time-out. Eventually, somebody's gonna be brave enough to stop this charade.

Watching that pointless time-out cost Seattle a win Sunday reminded us of the Detroit Tigers, running themselves out of a big inning in Game Four of the World Series when their fastest player chose to sacrifice his speed by diving into first base on an infield grounder. This is another example of a pointless tradition the game can do without. Nobody really believes you'll get to the base faster that way (how many Kenyans dive onto the track at the finish line in the 100-meter dash?), but after all, if you dive, no one can question your hustle, right? "Yeah, doggone shame, but he gave it all he had, didn't he?" Well, son, no he didn't. We signed him for his speed, and you just watched him throw it away. 

While we have cordially despised the New England Patriots ever since they cheap-shotted their way to a championship in a 2001 season that rightfully ought to have ended on that snowy night in Foxborough, there is no question Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have produced one of the most multi-faceted, devastating offenses of all time. Brady stands as the central figure in a constantly-changing cast of supporting players, all of whom seem to be deployed in exactly the right manner to best suit their particular skills. Watching them carve up a good Houston defense on Sunday, we were uncomfortably reminded, not for the first time, of how opponents must have felt watching Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the "49er Machine" relentlessly marching to score after score back in the day.

A beloved family member picked the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC Super Bowl entry at the beginning of the postseason, claiming that with their defense back at full strength they would simultaneously be the most-rested and most-overlooked team in the tournament. We don't know but that he's right. After seeing them win that 80-minute endurance contest Saturday-- despite the overall sloppy play, as compelling a game as we've seen in years-- we're inclined to agree. Beating Denver in Denver is never an easy task, and while the postgame focus has mostly centered around how the Broncos lost it, we needn't forget how the Ravens won it, either. This is an extraordinarily resilient team, and, when we come down to it, probably is better-equipped to slow down Brady and beat the Patriots' secondary than either the Texans or the Broncos.    

How do you slow down Brady? With a pass rush up the middle in his face. And the deep passing attack that turned Champ Bailey into Chump Bailout Sunday can certainly get behind Devin McCourty and company, which is not the same as saying it will, of course. But we like the Ravens to win outright, and were we gamblin' men we'd sure enough take those nine points.

HarBowl, anyone? Or is it Supe-HAR Bowl? Well... you decide.

But on this we brook no argument: GO NINERS!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Justin Smith: MVP?

If a player's worth can accurately be gauged by how his play affects his team when he's not in the lineup, then by that measure Justin Smith may be the most valuable player in football.

The 49ers give up half a yard more per play when Number 94 sits. Their sack rate nearly doubles when he takes the field. Without him the 49ers, like most teams, need to blitz to get steady pressure on the quarterback. With him, they're the Super Bowl version of the New York Giants against Tom Brady: four guys getting it done up front, leaving seven in coverage. For anecdotal evidence, look at Aldon Smith:  from Defensive Player of the Year candidate to Claude Rains in just three weeks.

So, with the big guy listed as 'probable' for tonight's prime-time showdown with Green Bay, we're optimistic. A steady pass rush combined with the power running game was enough to keep Aaron Rodgers on the bench much of the time at Lambeau Field back in September, and keeping the game's top quarterback off the field is the best way to beat the league's best passing team. Just ask all those coaches who opposed Joe Montana years ago. Rodgers is more willing than most QBs to leave a risky play on the field and take a sack, because he has such great confidence in himself and in his receivers he figures there'll always be a next time. Keeping those 'next times' to a minimum will be the job of Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, et. al., and getting those sacks will be much easier if Justin Smith is there to tie up two blockers and allow Aldon Smith to roam free.  We should have some idea of how well it's all working before halftime.

Not a few have opined they believe this game will decide the winner of the Super Bowl. We'll abstain from such comments ourselves, at least as long as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady remain in the tournament.  But this weekend is without a doubt the real highlight of the NFL season. The pretenders were excused last week, and of the eight teams and four games scheduled for today and tomorrow we don't see a dog in the bunch. While leaning sympathetically in the direction of Houston, Atlanta, and Denver in the other games, we only sell out one way, now and forever: GO NINERS!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Week's Reprieve

Well, thanks in large part to Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder, Jared Allen, et. al., our beloved 49ers have an extra week to rest and heal before postseason play begins.  Justin Smith, for one, will have had nearly a full month of rehabilitation and rest by the time they tee it up at Candlestick sometime over the weekend of January 12-13, and, as the song goes, you know that can't be bad.  In a few days we'll enjoy a full weekend of games which are guaranteed not to make us cry or swear off Tabasco sauce for life. Four teams will move on, four teams will go home, and none of them are our beloved Niners. So let's everybody exhale-- all together now-- and resolve to enjoy ourselves with no worries.

Meanwhile, for those of you belatedly leaping on the bandwagon now that the "second season" is underway, here's your chance to blend in and ingratiate yourself with the hard-core football junkies who've been living and dying with the scarlet and gold all their borned days. As every true fan knows, there's nothing more phony than some dilettante/wannabe cluelessly spouting what he or she thinks is "football jargon" while we're busy watching the play-action fake on the field.

The key to seamlessly blending in and rendering yourself indistinguishable from your newly-found football-fanatic friends is to keep what comments you do make short, blunt, and, most importantly, casually tossed off like Shakespearean asides.  Rather than calling unwanted attention to yourself and your incomplete knowledge of the intricate proceedings, these remarks will simply contribute to the overall flow of the action without provoking criticism or even attention. Good football-fan commentary is the Muzak of the game, and to that end, we offer the following suggestions. (Note: if up until this moment you have regarded Sunday afternoons in late autumn as perfect occasions for the ballet or the symphony, this guide is not for you. Some basic knowledge of the game-- distinguishing offense from defense, for example, or being able to tell a run from a pass--  is assumed. If that's not you, resign yourself to being the "weirdo" in the room, and try using it to your advantage. Remember, some chicks dig the arty, sensitive types.)

For the rest of you: Read, practice, and memorize. Soon you too will sound like a seasoned, knowledgeable fan.

Running Plays:
"He's carryin' the ball like a loaf of bread."
"Just lookin' for a place to fall down."
"Good block!"
"Protect the football!"
"They're trying to tackle the football, not the guy."
"Hah. Ran into his own man."

Passing Plays:
"He's got all day."  (Alternate with, "No pressure." For variety, occasionally switch to, "Hey, he's gonna be sacked!") 
"That guy's wide open."
"Get rid of it!"
"HOLDING!" (Avoid when your team has the ball.)
(Any incomplete pass)  "Lucky it wasn't intercepted."
(After a dropped pass) "He was runnin' with it before he caught it."

Any Play:
(Just as the ball is snapped)  "Hey, that guy's lined up offsides."
"Clip! Clip!"  (Avoid when your team has the ball.)
"He's not all that fast, but he is quick."
"Quit runnin' sideways, you idiot."
"That's holding!"  (Now, occasionally someone will challenge you and say, "Holding? Offensive or defensive?" Unless you're really sure of yourself, the best all-purpose answer to such a question is, "Both.") 
"Watch the play clock."
"Throw a flag!"  (If questioned, wave it off with, "Aaaah, refs didn't see it.")
(After a play with no gain) "Well, that didn't fool anybody." 
(Before any kick, except the extra point)  "Watch out for the fake."
(Play goes your team's way) "It's about time that worked!"
(Play goes the other team's way) "Isn't there a flag on that?"
When your team is losing, shake your head and say, "They can't get outta their own way."
When your team is winning, clap your hands and say, "Okay, guys! Gotta keep the pressure on."
When someone says, "Plenty of time left," nod sagely and reply, "For both teams."

You're welcome.  Break a leg!