It was an anecdote from Cris Collinsworth meant to pump up Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and poke a little fun at himself. In the fourth quarter of the Seahawks’ incredible 35-30 win over the New England Patriots Sunday night, Collinsworth remarked how Wilson has surprisingly not received an MVP vote in his career, and the commentator is partially to blame. Last season, Collinsworth says he would have selected Wilson as his most valuable player, but he sent in his ballot late the previous year. As a result, his vote was taken away.
Al Michaels responded with a quip about the post office to complete the exchange. In normal times, it would have been a throwaway line. But with the post office at the center of a supercharged political battle over the efficacy and legality of mail-in voting, the remark struck a nerve. “Did you send it through the post office?,” Michaels asked.
“I’m just not … good with that stuff,” Collinsworth replied, with an apparent squirm in his voice.
While the NFL is far from the first professional sport to play amidst the coronavirus pandemic, its return sends the strongest statement. As the most-popular sports league in the country, primetime NFL broadcasts often represent a zeitgeist of the times. That was certainly the case Sunday night. On the field, the Patriots and Seahawks involved themselves in another classic duel, ending their game with a one-score margin and on the 1-yard line for the third straight time. In Super Bowl XLIX, Wilson infamously threw the ball on the 1-yard line with the game on the line, resulting in Malcolm Butler’s trophy-clinching interception. It was a pick that catapulted Butler’s career, and literally sent the Seahawks to the edge of a cliff. Three seasons later, the Patriots and Seahawks met up on Sunday night for a Week 10 grudge match, and Seattle pulled away with the win after a successful goal-line stand.
On Sunday, the Patriots once again found themselves on the 1-yard line with the clock winding down, needing a touchdown to spring ahead. Cam Newton, who went 30-of-44 for 397 yards, had already scored two rushing touchdowns. The Patriots gave him the ball on the last play of the game, and he was stuffed.
The Seahawks celebrated their remarkable victory, basking in the adulation of fake crowd noise.
As Michaels mentioned several times, the Seahawks usually possess the most potent home-field advantage in the NFL. But the notorious 12th man was absent from CenturyLink Field, due to coronavirus restrictions. The Seahawks announced at least their first three home games would be played without fans.
The NFL is pumping fake crowd noise onto TV broadcasts this season, with NFL Media’s audio department performing the laborious task of gathering real crowd noise samples from all 32 stadiums, and categorizing them to fit each moment in every game broadcast. It is an incredible feat, and when the camera is focused on the field, it is difficult to tell the difference. As NFL Media audio maven Vince Caputo explained to The Washington Post, the league has isolated crowd reactions from each stadium — positive and negative — and divided them into four intensity settings: low, medium, high and peak. The Patriots gearing up to snap the ball on the 1-yard line with time expiring in a five-point game would qualify as a moment of “peak intensity.” The artificial 12th man was rumbling.
But inside the stadium, it was quiet. When Belichick was asked last week about the atmosphere, he likened it to practice. When the Seahawks stopped Newton, and the camera zoomed out, the tens of thousands of empty seats jumped into frame.
It was an unfortunate reminder of the illusion viewers were under for the previous three hours.
The NFL season starting on time and taking place in familiar settings — actual home stadiums opposed to neutral sites — is the ultimate illusion of normalcy. Outside of coaches donning masks and face shields, the game presentation doesn’t look any different. That is, until we’re treated to shots of empty stadiums lighting up the skyline.
The Seattle skyline was filled with smoke from the colossal and unforgiving wildfires for most of the week, putting the fate of the game in doubt. Fortunately, the Air Quality Index fell to 19 by the end of the week, clearing the way for the NFL to play without concern. The AQI must exceed 200 for the NFL to cancel a contest.
Michaels remarked a couple of times about the league’s good fortune.
So far, ratings for the NFL indicate the American public is relishing the chance to watch professional football as usual. The New Orleans Saints’ clash with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week was the highest-rated Fox NFL opener in four years, and most-watched telecast since Super Bowl LIV. The premier of “Thursday Night Football” was slightly higher than last season as well.
While the 2020 NFL season began with scattered fans at Arrowhead Stadium booing a moment of unity between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, it was not as much of a focal point Sunday, though numerous teams once again stayed in the locker room during the national anthem. A Washington Post poll shows most Americans support players protesting during the anthem against systemic racism and injustice.
In other words, players using their platforms to raise awareness about racism has now become normalized. That is a positive sign. And after Sunday night’s thriller between two of the NFL’s best teams, it’s safe to say watching professional football amidst a pandemic has become normalized, too.
The jury is still out on how positive that is.