Flock & Tingle: A salute to the parabola people

Flock & Tingle is John Teti’s interim column about pro football.

Parabola man, parabola man, doing the things a parabola can

Late in the Chicago Bears’ Week 11 victory against the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago running back Tarik Cohen dashed toward the boundary on a routine kickoff return—it was routine for most parties involved, at least. One sideline spectator was literally bowled over by the action. As Cohen ran off the field, he headed toward an NBC parabolic microphone operator who, in a clumsy haste to clear the path, tumbled backward on his ass. This is a slapstick sequence that happens around the league every week, an oafish display of the hardships that trained professionals will suffer to let America hear what a football game sounds like. (“Oof, grunt,” is pretty much how it sounds, if you were wondering.)

A parabolic mic allows technicians to capture audio from a distance, and it is a sophisticated device, but its construction is not complicated. It’s essentially a microphone mounted in a giant plastic salad bowl. The job of the parabola man (which is not remotely what he is called) is to stand there holding this huge bowl in front of his face while 22 pulsating meatbags of adrenaline and testosterone smash into each other at incredible speed a few yards away. This may sound like an unsafe workplace, but not to worry—there is a six-foot-wide white stripe between the hyper-muscular meatbags and the audio technician, and when the meatbags reach that stripe, they are expected to slow down. So you see, no precaution has been spared.

It is impossible to be graceful with a parabolic mic in your hands. In the clip above of Cohen’s kickoff return, notice that moments before the parabola man takes his tumble, a videographer dances out of the way. The camera person can be so nimble because he’s working a Steadicam, an elegant device designed to allow its user agility and fluidity of movement. The salad bowl offers no such affordances. Thus when mayhem approaches our parabola man, his only choice is to let out a metaphorical “timberrrr!” and hope that one of his colleagues will break his fall. None of them do.

Yet if that near-collision on the Vikings-Bears sideline demonstrates the hazards that confront the parabolic mic operator, it also showcases the dimension this intrepid crew member brings to the broadcast. Only through the parabola man’s dedication to standing his ground can we hear the thud-thud-thud of Cohen’s cleats as he rumbles away from the Minnesota defenders. That said, this is an unusual instance—the parabolic mics are typically used for ambience more than for crisp detail. When you clearly overhear, say, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers growling “Green 18!” before the snap, that audio comes to you courtesy of tiny microphones embedded in the pads of Rodgers’ nearby linemen. The salad bowls are good, but they’re not that good.

Still, the background noise that’s provided by this parabola man, and his fellow parabola people stationed around the field, is part of the invisible symphony that springs forth from a modern-day NFL broadcast. And while you can’t see the orchestra, if you listen closely you can at least perceive the conductor.

Put on a pair of headphones and watch the clip directly above, of a play from the most recent Tennessee-Indianapolis contest. Pay attention to the background noise. A moment after the ball is snapped, you can hear the CBS crew’s sound mixer shift the mix to favor microphones placed downfield—it sounds like the crowd noise suddenly moves all the way to the left. The mixer is anticipating the movement of the play, the same way orchestra conductors move their batons ahead of the music. (If you’d like to know more, the trade publication TVTechnology did a somewhat technical but readable interview with a number of networks sports sound mixers a few years back.)

Football can seem like a knucklehead sport, on account of it is, yet beneath its superficial violence lies a sophisticated game of endlessly complex strategy. Fans may realize this already. It’s one reason we love to watch, after all: Football is one of the great team-with-a-capital-T sports. And so is broadcasting, in its way. Televising an NFL game is an enterprise that brings an astonishing variety of moving parts into concert. The next time you see a guy with a giant plastic bowl take an awkward tumble—and you will—feel free to laugh, and then take a moment to appreciate the humble parabola person’s role in the invisible symphony of TV football.

Tiger by the tail

baker mayfield being a twitterBrowns quarterback Baker Mayfield has electrified Cleveland, both because he has a great ability to throw a football to another man and also because look at him. After Cleveland’s lopsided defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday, Mayfield made some chilly remarks in regard to his recently former head coach, Hue Jackson, who is now an assistant on the Bengals sideline (because nobody does “incestuous” like NFL coaching staffs). “Left Cleveland, goes down to Cincinnati, I don’t know,” Mayfield said in his postgame press appearance, referencing Jackson’s decision to take a paycheck from a division rival after being fired by the Browns.

Mayfield’s straightforward enumeration of Jackson’s itinerary probably seems innocuous if you are not steeped in the emotional reality of the NFL, where egos are eggshell-thin and men’s honor can be sullied by anything but the most banal statements. Like fan-waving nobles set atwitter in the court of Versailles, NFL pundits spent the week debating whether Mayfield’s press-conference sneer was uncouth or merely not nice. All of this attention worked to Mayfield’s favor, who has a burgeoning brand to build, as you can see from the tweet above. Clearly the young quarterback’s skill on the field is matched by a keen feel for the pressure points of the NFL media machine. And bully for him. I don’t have a stake in this fight, but I would point out to Mayfield that if you’re going to criticize your coach for teaming up with the Bengals, you might not want to pal around in your underwear with an actual bengal.

Peyton Manning is gonna take his time

It’s not every Friday you find yourself spellbound by a YouTube video in which semi-retired insurance spokesperson Peyton Manning analyzes Cleveland quarterback strategy. Yet I was rapt when the NFL’s YouTube channel posted footage of Manning deconstructing a few plays by the aforementioned Baker Mayfield and his counterpart on the Kansas City Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes. (You’ll have to click through to YouTube to watch the video, because the NFL doesn’t understand how the internet works.)

It’s no surprise that Manning possesses deep expertise, because he is one of the best ever at throwing a football to another man. And we already know he has charisma, because we’ve seen him sell so many racist pizzas on TV. Still, this video, which is an excerpt from his show Detail: Peyton Manning, is even better than you might expect because Manning isn’t merely perceptive, he’s accessible.

Too many NFL TV analysts pepper their observations with jargon like “cover-two” and “A-gap blitz” that is tough for novice viewers to penetrate (and repetitious for anyone). Erstwhile Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden was the worst about this. From his lips, the language of the game would become a tangle of shibboleths, a spittle-flecked mansplain that was broadcast on a national scale. The football-enjoying world is better off now that his communication skills are confined to the woebegone realm of the Oakland Raiders.

CBS’ Tony Romo, meanwhile, has stunned the broadcasting world since his debut last year by deigning to speak with his viewers in plain language. Unlike Gruden, Romo actually cares if people can understand the words coming out of his mouth. And judging by the warm reception Romo has enjoyed, it turns out the American public cares about understanding words, too, at least when they feel like it.

As good as he is, Romo is still constrained by the brief stretch of time between each play. In response to this limitation, he shouts, he hurries his cadence, he jabs at the Telestrator, all because it’s a struggle to contain his genius to a 40-second play clock—and I do not mean this facetiously. Romo has more lively substance to offer than the pace of the game allows. It’s as if he faces the broadcast equivalent of a quick crossing pattern, when a wide receiver streaks across the field and the quarterback only has a brief window to launch the ball. Romo delivers his commentary with the same intensity.

In Detail, however, Manning can afford to be patient. He can survey the play from different angles, and he can digress into an Animal House reference. Above all he can walk us through the sub-games of deception that an NFL offense plays on a defense. If Romo has to hit the equivalent of a crossing pattern, then Manning on Detail has something like the luxury of a long-developing deep route—one of which Manning elucidates with grace in the above-linked clip.

Detail appears on the ESPN+ streaming service, which is five bucks a month until you cancel or until you forget this recurring charge is on your credit card, which is exactly what they want you to do, yes, forget, forget, you can cancel anytime, forget, you are already forgetting as you read this sentence, forget. Still, I don’t know where else I’ll be able to find football breakdowns this expert, accessible, and quiet. So I’ll just sign up for the ESPN+ thing that I don’t want and cancel it later. I’m sure I’ll remember!

Your Week 13 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 emerges as a result of sentient persons viewing the FuturePicks™ in advance of Sunday’s pro football contests. Please do not read the picks.

The FuturePicks™ system lay dormant last week, as it was a time of rest. The week before, the meta-consciousness submitted its picks via Twitter. And apparently many sentient beings read them, because they were terrible—that is to say, they became terrible after you rudely looked at them. Shape up!

Week 11 games within acceptable parameters: 6

Week 11 divergences from FuturePicks™: 6

Overall FuturePicks™ integrity in 2018: 58.8 percent (47-33)

Here are the Week 13 picks. Do not read them.

SUNDAY — EARLY GAMES

Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons (CBS): Atlanta 23, Baltimore 19.

Denver Broncos vs. Cincinnati Bengals (CBS): Denver 27, Cincinnati 24.

Los Angeles Rams vs. Detroit Lions (Fox): Los Angeles 35, Detroit 28.

Arizona Cardinals vs. Green Bay Packers (Fox): Green Bay 33, Arizona 13.

Cleveland Browns vs. Houston Texans (CBS): Houston 38, Cleveland 24.

Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (CBS): Indianapolis 20, Jacksonville 11.

Buffalo Bills vs. Miami Dolphins (CBS): Miami 4, Buffalo 0.

Chicago Bears vs. New York Giants (Fox): Chicago 22, New York 16.

Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Fox): Carolina 31, Tampa Bay 25. 

SUNDAY — LATE GAMES

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Oakland Raiders (CBS): Kansas City 51, Oakland 3.

New York Jets vs. Tennessee Titans (CBS): Tennessee 38, New York 17.

Minnesota Vikings vs. New England Patriots (Fox): New England 27, Minnesota 21.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks (Fox): Seattle 26, San Francisco 14.

SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

Los Angeles Chargers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (NBC): Los Angeles 31, Pittsburgh 28.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

Washington vs. Philadelphia Eagles (ESPN): Philadelphia 28, Washington 20.

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