NFL's Opening Night: Plenty of flash, little substance

Jay Busbee

ATLANTA — Combine a couple best-there-ever-was legends, a couple bright-faced quick risers, several dozen hulking, warmup-sporting players, a couple thousand media members and one ragged-looking clown, and you’ve got the perfect opening for Super Bowl week.

The annual chucklefest that is the NFL’s Media Night — now dubbed “Opening Night” — is, in theory, a place where the media and the world get their first look at the two teams playing in this year’s game. (Like we haven’t been dissecting every element of their performance for the past 20 weeks.) But this night is less about getting relevant information from the teams involved and more about preening performances of more, more, more.

Held this year in Atlanta’s recently remodeled State Farm Arena, the home of the Hawks, opening night was more flashy, more sleek and, as a result, more remote than ever before. Yes, the Rams and the Patriots are the star attractions here, but you could swap them out with any other two teams — well, not the Raiders, let’s be real — and the effect would be exactly the same. Which, for the NFL, is exactly the point.

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Start with the catwalk that extended out into the center of the arena, a parade route that most of the players seemed almost embarrassed to travel. They entered between the “L” and the first “I” of “LIII,” glowing fifty-foot-high cerulean blue letters that rose above the floor like monoliths. It was an absurd overreach, enough to make an SEC football pregame hype video say, “Hey, that’s a little over the top,” and most of the players just strode on down it with a let’s-get-this-show-rolling demeanor.

Most, not all. As always, there is Gronk:

Opening Night illustrates the caste system inherent in the NFL: the big names — your Bradys, your Belichicks, your Goffs and McVays — get individual podiums. The rest, each wearing a warmup with their number on it, gets turned out into the crowd, to mingle with the media and answer innumerable “how excited are you to be in the Super Bowl?” questions.

It’s a chaotic madhouse, made all the more ridiculous by the pulsing music and public address system commentary thundering over it all. But hey, let’s not try to fool anybody here: if you care enough about the NFL to tune in to a bunch of interviews on a Monday night — or, more to the point, if you’re willing to pay $25 to sit in the stands and watch interviews — you’re going to be on board no matter how inane the questions, no matter how loud the background distractions. The idea here isn’t to get any useful info out of the players, it’s just to spend a bit of time hanging around them.

All of that’s fine, and any media member going into this whole cluster expecting to get anything other than canned platitudes — especially out of the locked-down Patriots — is going to spend the night seething. Here’s what’s frustrating: the weirdness has gone out of this event.

Time was when “reporters” would show up in costumes and throw out bizarre questions, often drawing as much camera time as the players themselves. Sure, some cranky old reporters groused that they weren’t able to ask Tom Brady to account for a decline in third-down conversion percentage, but who cares? The weirdos injected the NFL with something it’s needed since its first kickoff: fun.

Los Angeles Rams defensive end Ethan Westbrooks tries a dried cricket at Super Bowl opening night. (Reuters)
Los Angeles Rams defensive end Ethan Westbrooks tries a dried cricket at Super Bowl opening night. (Reuters)

Sure, it’s for the best that the female reporters with spray-painted leggings are mostly gone; that’s a relic of a bygone era. But aside from one correspondent wearing a red sombrero and one clown — seriously, a literal clown, red nose and everything — who looked like he’d just woken up behind a Dumpster, plus, of course, comedian J.B. Smoove, who’s been to more of these nights than the Patriots, this was a routine assemblage of all us media folk. I love these people, but when we’re doing our jobs, we’re pretty dang boring.

Whether the NFL isn’t credentialing goofball media outlets or people just aren’t Getting Strange anymore, something’s gone from this event. It’s glossy, it’s professional, it’s sponsored and branded a dozen times in every direction. But it’s lacking an edge that’s sorely missed.

Granted, there were a couple moments. One reporter slung journalistic objectivity into the cheap seats, asking Gronkowski to “Gronk Spike” her Patriots-branded purse. Gronk declined, but did pose for a picture. This, immediately after he threatened to show up at an Emory University frat party. One podium over, Tom Brady slung a small football right through the uprights on the head of a kid sitting on someone’s shoulders, because of course he did.

But for the most part, this was a routine evening of players getting asked how cool it is to be in the Super Bowl (answer: very) and how tough they expected the other team to be (answer: also, very), plus Michael Irvin busting onto podiums to tell players how awesome they are. It’s a smoothly functioning machine, which is surely just how the NFL likes it.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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