Flock & Tingle is John Teti’s intermittent interim column about pro football.
When Tony Romo replaced Phil Simms in 2017 as CBS’ lead color commentator, the football world gained a fresh voice whose enthusiasm for the game bubbles out of the broadcast booth. But in Simms, we lost a craftsman of the English language whose twisted verbiage evoked the absurdity and elegance of America’s game. Simms was the football world’s first, and perhaps last, analyst-poet.
Simms’ habit of circumnavigating his consciousness to arrive at a point—if he did in fact arrive—lent a surreal quality to his analysis. His finest pieces of commentary/poetry would wander into an orderless thicket of sports and language before emerging with a profound truth (for those who listened closely, at least). Applying this approach over his career, Simms inspired a lasting antipathy in viewers. It’s a familiar plight for those in the avant garde. The audience evidently prefers the unchallenging pabulum put forth by, perhaps, Fox analyst Troy Aikman, a person who says “heck” a lot.
In the past, I have made it a mission to transcribe Simms’ extraordinary orations and render them in verse, making every effort to preserve the artist’s intentions. Years ago, when I wrote for a different website, I often published my favorite Simms poems. (You can still read many of them, although there used to be clips of Simms “reciting” each poem, and these are now broken, to make room for the future.) It was a popular feature, but the work was vexing—forever unfinished. My digital archives are peppered with clips of Simms verses still waiting to be transcribed, like this compact yet intriguing stanza from 2016, heretofore unpublished:
Wait lemme get that
So you gotta coach?
I’m just kidding
We’ve heard that phrase
Everybody’s heard that one on TV!
Many, many times
Managing the game, you know
Just something that’s overlooked
—Phillip Hieronymus Simms
Simms is now part of the CBS studio show, The NFL Today, where his poetic output has ebbed. The job of the in-studio panel is to fill the interstices of an NFL broadcast day—pregame, halftime, postgame—with the sound of large men opining and guffawing. The soothing sound of testosterone pacifies tipsy fans who might otherwise grow upset by the absence of football on their TV picture. Often, members of the panel will throw a football to each other, so viewers remember what a football looks like.
Studio segments are not an ideal fit for Simms’ down-the-rabbit-hole style. An in-game analyst at least has the space to speak in short paragraphs. The crowded studio desk—where airtime must be portioned out between the five besuited men on the panel—limits a commentator to 15-second bullet points. Simms has enough TV experience that he adapted to the gig. Even so, his legato ruminations contrast with the staccato takes offered by the more conventional opinionators at the NFL Today desk.
Perhaps aware that he would always bounce to his own peculiar rhythm, the producers of The NFL Today installed Simms to the left of anchor James Brown, while all the other commentators remained on the right. The staging isolates Simms as the weirdo of the bunch—an absent-minded misfit held up for mockery by his manlier peers. Accordingly, the panelists on the right side of the NFL Today desk serve as avatars for a Simms-scorning public. They jeer and roll their eyes at Simms the same way so many Americans did when he was still calling games in the booth. In this way, CBS sustains a certain tradition.
Simms appears unfazed by the mockery. At best, he is bemused by the loud I’m-a-big-TV-football-guy posturing that his colleagues display. This makes him a great foil—or “receptacle” might be the right word—for their stagey exasperation.
During one pregame broadcast late in the season, Brown initiated a “true or false” segment by asking Simms whether the ultimate loser of the Week 14 Minnesota Vikings-Seattle Seahawks game would reach the playoffs. Simms began to answer the pointless question with a modicum of nuance, prompting fellow panelists Boomer Esiason and Bill Cowher to howl in despair. “It’s one or the other!” “It’s a simple question!” they sputtered, interrupting each other as they interrupted Simms.
Undeterred, Simms proceeded to say he believed the Vikings would not make the postseason if they lost to Seattle, but the Seahawks could still survive if they lost. “That wasn’t even the question,” Cowher snarled. “Well, yeah, it was,” Simms observed. “You know, you should ask yourself the questions!” Esiason added, inexplicably. And so it goes every Sunday.
(Simms’ prediction was right after all. Minnesota lost to Seattle and didn’t make the playoffs. The Seahawks did make the playoffs, and it turns out they didn’t need their Week 14 win to reach the postseason.)
My heart aches for Simms, the dethroned philosopher king, who is forced to endure such braying derision from The NFL Today’s lineup of aging meatheads. He must think back on the glory years when he could conduct a more dignified colloquy, like the time he trenchantly farted on Jim Nantz in the CBS booth.
Those days, the ones when he farted, are over. Still, even now, Phil finds time for an occasional poem.
What Ben Roethlisberger Is Doing
Yeah, do a lot of new things on defense
for the Chargers
That will create problems
I’m not talkin about their offense
I’m gonna talk about their defense
What’s Ben Roethlisberger doin?
And Antonio Brown?
—Phillip Manchego Simms
Simms also is a regular on Inside The NFL, the weekly pay-cable program in which majestic NFL Films game recaps are paired with discussion segments that act as a more relaxed, upscale version of an ESPN-type football chat. Inside The NFL is class all the way. It has a fireplace.
On Inside The NFL, Simms has a bit more room to wander in his commentary, but not enough. The discussion remains too grounded in reality, and Simms is too prepared for each exchange. His gift shines brightest when he is compelled to extemporize, to navigate the rocky rapids on his stream of consciousness. There will never be a better venue for him than the booth.
Still, he manages the occasional poem.
You Don’t Go Wow
Here’s the thing they’re sayin about
when you talk about Clowney
You look at his numbers
You don’t go wow
He’s so much more disruptive
Deshaun Watson, don’t forget
Him, J.J. Watt, and Clowney all hurt last year
It took Deshaun a little bit to come back
They got an offensive line
by standards of the NFL
—Phillip Instantiate Simms
Over this Divisional Weekend, NFL fans will hear a variety of broadcasters call the action, with talent ranging from adequate to excellent. But there will be a poetic touch missing, one we will never truly get back. Try to enjoy the games anyway.