Flock & Tingle: NBC’s Green Zone is not what Al Michaels says it is

Flock & Tingle is John Teti’s interim column about pro football, published here at The Avocado on the gracious invitation of the moderators while John works on a new website to publish his things and have fun and such. In fact, John is the one typing this introductory paragraph. Thank you for having him, John says. Enjoy the football this weekend, John says.

Why must you turn my football field into a house of lies?

Al Michaels couldn’t even talk about the Green Zone for one sentence without pointing out why it’s silly. Two minutes into the Atlanta-Philadelphia game that kicked off the 2018 regular season, NBC electronically painted a swath of grass at Lincoln Financial Field a darker shade of green. For those viewers who hadn’t watched the preseason—i.e., sensible people—Michaels explained why the turf between the football and the Falcons’ line-to-gain had turned from chartreuse to emerald. “And the ‘Green Zone’ [is] in,” Michaels said, “to show you exactly where they have to go—up to the yellow line.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 3.31.06 PM.pngThose last five words were telling. Even as Michaels tried, with undetectable enthusiasm, to justify the existence of the Green Zone, he ended up highlighting its superfluity. The yellow first-down line has been the most effective visual innovation in sports broadcasting since instant replay. People like the yellow line. It makes the game more accessible without being intrusive—in other words, it is the ideal graphical flourish. And now here is the Green Zone to do the same job, but worse.

The advent of the Green Zone unleashed a spate of articles that hewed to that lowest form of reportage: assembling a bunch of tweets. Here’s how this modern-day approach to journalism works. First, you conduct a search for something—“brown horses,” say—on Twitter, a website where everybody is angry at everything, always. Then you paste the angriest results into a webpage. Finally, you write a headline that declares, “The internet hates brown horses!” Then people will tweet about the angry article, angrily, as the cycle starts anew. Try it yourself! Advance the inexorable degradation of our information society from the comfort of your own home!

At media outlets ranging from USA Today (“NFL fans immediately ripped NBC’s new Green Zone”) to Awful Announcing (“heavily mocked on Twitter”) to Yahoo Sports (“Viewers not impressed”), reporters harvested Internet denizens’ smartphone burps and assembled them into screeds that fixated on the aforementioned redundancy: Since we already have the yellow line, the Green Zone is dumb.

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 4.03.46 PM.pngAnd I agree, to an extent. After giving it a chance for a few weeks, I’m a Green Zone detractor, not just because it’s needless, but also because it creates an electronic halo around the players. The effect is subtle enough that I struggle to describe it, but it’s essentially the same feeling I get when I’m watching an almost-perfect-but-not-quite green-screen scene. It makes the players appear less human and more like video game characters. Notice how Dallas defensive tackle Maliek Collins (No. 96) and some of his teammates look superimposed on the turf in the above screenshot of the Week 2 Sunday Night Football telecast. It’s a nagging visual itch I can’t scratch. Still, like I said, it’s subtle. So I can’t get too upset.

But whether you tolerate the Green Zone or not, the tweet-fueled backlash stories miss the point. In all of these reaction pieces, the conversation starts and ends with the implicit question, “Doesn’t NBC realize we already have the yellow line?” Of course the Sunday Night Football producers know this. And of course they know that the Green Zone raison d’être proffered by Michaels—it shows you “exactly” how far a team must advance—is nonsense. Yet the SNF team would not alter the look of such a high-profile piece of NBC’s lineup without careful consideration. The producers must have had their reasons. So for me the intriguing question is, what are those reasons?

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 3.32.34 PM.pngA big piece of this mystery was resolved by SNF executive producer Fred Gaudelli during an interview with Richard Deitsch in The Athletic (a site that is paywalled but, to me, worth the price of admission for its sports broadcasting coverage alone). Gaudelli explained that he liked the behind-the-quarterback vantage point provided by the “SkyCam”—which NBC employs occasionally during game action—but this angle created a problem of depth perception that Green Zone was designed to mitigate:

One issue for Gaudelli on SkyCam was the angle was not perfectly clear on how far the play had gone, especially on third downs. So one of his production staffers last year suggested creating a grey zone graphic that went from the line of scrimmage to the yellow first down line on third down plays. “I looked at it and said that is pretty interesting,” Gaudelli recalled. “I’m not sure grey is the right color and I don’t know what it is but let’s keep developing.” So NBC experimented for the next six to eight weeks and thus, the Green Zone was born.

This makes sense. Not only can it be tough to judge the distance of a play from the SkyCam, as Gaudelli notes, but the yellow line is markedly harder to see in this view, too. The Green Zone makes a noticeable difference here. (Side note: It could have been worse—we could have gotten the Gray Zone.)

Yet SNF didn’t restrict the Green Zone to SkyCam shots. It also pops up in the traditional upper-deck camera angles, where you can’t reasonably argue that the graphic provides valuable information to the viewer. But here is the key detail: SNF only attaches the Green Zone to this angle on third and fourth down. Its true function in this case is to serve as a giant “Here’s a pivotal down!” alert system designed to grab your attention without your realizing it.

Other networks have tried a similar tactic, changing the line-to-gain from yellow to red on fourth down. The color of the Green Zone is less vivid but, in my opinion, the effect is more arresting. Try this: The next time SNF puts up the Green Zone for a third down, direct your gaze just past the edge of your TV screen so the action is in your peripheral vision. If you’re like me, you can hardly perceive the line-to-gain at all, but you can still see the contrast of the Green Zone. In my opinion, this is the sneaky genius of the Green Zone. It’s a ploy to recapture the distracted viewer.

One of my most memorable media-literacy learning moments came in college when a music professor asked me to play a Beethoven piano sonata for a student in her audio engineering class, so the student could record it and produce an “album” from it. A couple days after the session, I ran into the professor. I told her I’d love to drop by the studio and hear what the piece sounded like on the high-end speakers they were surely using to fine-tune my performance.

She laughed. “We’d love to have you in the studio,” she said, “but today we listened to you on a pair of $10 earbuds and a CD boombox from Radio Shack.” The professor explained that people listen to music on a variety of equipment, so you have to engineer tracks to sound reasonably good on anything—not just a pricey audiophile setup. In other words, you must produce for the audience you have, not just the audience you want.

The same applies to TV. The SNF creative team might wish that every Sunday evening, Americans would tune their televisions to NBC and stare unblinking at the screen until the conclusion of the postgame show. But we don’t. So the Green Zone has the potential to catch a viewer’s eye if they’re, say, in a noisy bar with a bunch of TVs on the wall, or dicking around on their phone, or purposely looking past the edge of the screen to judge the subliminal efficacy of a TV graphics package. (The latter category may apply only to me.)

The people who make SNF are aware that they compete with a mess of distractions, and the Green Zone marks one attempt among many to win that fight. When it’s third down, NBC can’t exactly put up red flashing lights and have Cris Collinsworth shout “WE GOT A BIG DOWN A-COMIN’, FOLKS, WOO-WOOOOOOOO!” (Although Fox might try this.) So instead, we get a dark green stripe, which NBC hopes to embed in your subconscious over the course of many weeks until you unwittingly associate that band of color with the impulse to look at the TV.

Above all, the Green Zone is a branding exercise. Since all NFL broadcasts look essentially the same, the league’s broadcast partners innovate around the edges to make their own productions stand out. Unless other networks copy the Green Zone—which I consider unlikely for now—that darkened stripe implicitly serves as a giant ad for NBC Sports. Because when you see it, you know what network you’re watching.

So yes, Al Michaels lied. The Green Zone isn’t there to solve a problem that the yellow line already solved. It’s there to solve the eternal problem for broadcast television: the problem that there is always something else to watch. I’d give even odds that the Green Zone will survive into the 2019 season. If it dies, though, some other new wrinkle will appear in its place. And rest assured, the internet will hate it.

The Elements Of Sack Celebration Style: Courtesy

A sack is an expression of pure domination—a show of strength that, for a single down, renders the opposing team’s efforts pathetic and futile. But this spirit of conquest is not incompatible with a spirit of courtesy. When celebrating a sack, it is optional but advisable to incorporate politeness in the performance—it might be the dash of grace that transforms a merely good sack celebration into a masterpiece. 

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For instance, here is Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence striking a classic “Are you not entertained?” pose after wresting New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning to the ground. Lawrence looks fantastic, to be sure. But does he need to shove Giants offensive lineman Nate Solder before basking in the appreciation of the crowd? After all, Solder’s quarterback had been laid low, so he is already sad—and being pushed probably made him feel even more sad! Part of courtesy is considering other people’s feelings.

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On the other hand, Lawrence made a picture of this celebration the header image on his Twitter account after the game, and he made sure to include Manning in the frame. Sharing your online platform with a rival? Now that is truly courteous.

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Oh look, here is another Dallas Cowboy sacking Eli Manning. This time, it’s defensive end Taco Charlton. After his sack, Charlton immediately made pretend tacos for his teammates. But here is the key—he made sure to bring enough pretend tacos for everyone. They say it’s tough to get a great education on a football scholarship, but this University Of Michigan alum clearly got an A-plus in Manners 101.

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Chivalry is not dead, insists Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who cannot remove his hat but thoughtfully mimes his wish to do so after sacking the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees. What’s more, because of a penalty, this sack didn’t even count—now that’s politeness on a team-wide scale! Yes, the Browns ultimately lost this game, but it is this strength of character that made their ensuing Thursday night victory possible. Strength of character and quarterback Baker Mayfield, not necessarily in that order.

Your Week 3 FuturePicks™

Flock & Tingle is the only interim football column with FuturePicks™, an NFL prediction system that employs temporal quantum-tunneling technology to compress all of human existence, indeed all of time itself, to a single point. The result is a weekly slate of football game picks that are guaranteed to be correct because, from the perspective of FuturePicks™, they have already happened.

NOTE: Foreknowledge of the future necessarily alters the future. Flock & Tingle is not responsible for any disruption to causality that may emerge as a result of sentient persons viewing the FuturePicks™ in advance of Sunday’s pro football contests. To preserve the integrity of the quantum predictions, PLEASE DO NOT READ THE PICKS.

Here are the picks!

New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, noon Central Time, Fox): Atlanta 38, New Orleans 35. 

Green Bay Packers vs. Washington (Sunday, noon, Fox): Washington 25, Green Bay 24.

Indianapolis Colts vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, noon, Fox): Indianapolis 24, Philadelphia 17.

New York Giants vs. Houston Texans (Sunday, noon, Fox): Houston 20, New York 14.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, noon, Fox): Kansas City 70, San Francisco 23.

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Zay loves him some Drake. 💯 #FunFactFriday

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Buffalo Bills vs. Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, noon, CBS): Minnesota 28, Buffalo 0. Every Friday is Fun Fact Friday on the Buffalo Bills Instagram account, because facts are the only potential source of fun for the Bills at the moment. Although, if you read the comments left by Buffalo fans, it doesn’t seem like the facts are creating much fun, either.

Oakland Raiders vs. Miami Dolphins (Sunday, noon, CBS): Miami 17, Oakland 16.

Denver Broncos vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, noon, CBS): Baltimore 30, Denver 24. Here’s an honest question. Okay, a semi-honest question. Do you think, on some subconscious level, Denver Broncos general manager John Elway wanted Case Keenum to be the Broncos’ quarterback because Keenum looks just like John Elway when he’s under center? I can’t find a still image that really sells the resemblance; all I know is when Keenum has his helmet on and goes back to pass, my brain always takes in the TV image and, for a split-second, exclaims, “Hey, that’s John Elway!” And I wonder if John Elway’s brain does the same thing.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, noon, CBS): Carolina 23, Cincinnati 16.

Tennessee Titans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, noon, CBS): Jacksonville 30, Tennessee 20. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel has kept NFL reporters guessing whether he’ll start Marcus Mariota or Blaine Gabbert at quarterback in Week 3. Literally, he has kept them guessing. Every time they guess, he just giggles and says, “Guess again!” The whole exchange is wearing thin, and reporters have considered giving up, but on the other hand, their readers want to know who will have the privilege of losing to the Jaguars tomorrow. It’s hard to resist a scoop.

Los Angeles Chargers vs. Also Los Angeles Rams (Sunday, 3:05 p.m., CBS): Rams 28, Chargers 13.

Dallas Cowboys vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 3:25 p.m., Fox): Dallas 26, Seattle 18.

Chicago Bears vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 3:25 p.m., Fox): Chicago 24, Arizona 14. 

New England Patriots vs. Detroit Lions (Sunday, 7:20 p.m., NBC): New England 28, Detroit 8. Who has your favorite beard in the NFL—Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia or Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck? Those are your only choices.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Monday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN): Pittsburgh 4, Tampa Bay 2. Safety dance!!!!

A quick plug for the road

Do you watch Better Call Saul? Then you might enjoy my weekly “Basement Breakdown” videos in which I analyze the gorgeous and inspired filmmaking of this wonderful television show. Here is a link to this week’s Breakdown, in which I wear a track suit.

Thanks for reading, I’ll see you again soon.