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Sports

The NFL Previewed in Song, Part III: The AFC North

Can Andy Dalton get it together? Are the Ravens too old? Will Johnny Manziel be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland 15 years from now?

by VICE Sports
Aug 14 2014, 12:05pm

Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the third part of our NFL preview, in which we pick a song that symbolizes each team. (Here are parts one and two.) Today we're looking at the AFC North, a vicious place where men are men, defenses are defenses, and quarterbacks are often struggling. 

Cincinnati Bengals - Joni Mitchell, "The Jungle Line"

"The Jungle Line" is Joni Mitchell's first unpretty song. It's also some best-rapper-alive shit—kitchen sinkish instrumentally, only sort of held together by Mitchell's fearlessly bad poetry. More of The Hissing of Summer Lawns should sound like it, and the perfectly fine sweet songbird numbers seem pap-like by comparison. In the wake of "Jungle Line," anything that's not muddy, moogy, and disorienting is a waste of time.

The point is, Andy Dalton needs to get himself together. The popular perception (which isn't entirely fair) is that the Bengals' excellent defense and terrific receiving corps carry him while he holds them back. Dalton isn't unlike Eli Manning before the Giants quarterback felled the Patriots in multiple Super Bowls: a pretty good, if erratic, player whose pretty goodness is considered a liability. Be Drew Brees! commands the sports-shouting machine, like Dalton isn't trying his damndest to do just that.

Mitchell, incidentally, was once seen as only a muse to more artistically gifted men—Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, James Taylor, et al.—until her discography snuck up on everyone. She produced too many interesting albums to be considered the rock world's girlfriend any longer, and critics came to appreciate her on her own terms.

The cliché is true: Football is a team game, and as a result, individual players don't stand out the way they do in some other sports. Nearly all famous football players are quarterbacks, because they hold the most sway over a team's fortunes: If you stick Tom Brady behind a not-wholly-incompetent line, he'll win some games for you. (This is the reason New England has traditionally never invested much in receivers.) Mere not-quite-greatness isn't acceptable at quarterback.

The point is, again, Andy Dalton needs to get himself together. And wouldn't it be terrific if he did? The Bengals might be the best team in the league if he figures out how to spread his wings. If Brady-esque transcendence doesn't lie dormant within him, then he can at least aim for ruthless efficiency—and for what it's worth, he's improved his yards per attempt average every year. We should be rooting for him. We should be excited. The world can always use another great quarterback, and how wonderful would it be if the Bengals finally emerged as a team for everyone to be worried about?

Prediction: 13-3

-Colin McGowan

Cleveland Browns - The Fall's Cover of "White Line Fever"

From the August, 2029, edition of Sports Illustrated:

The man formerly known as Johnny Football lives in a trailer in the middle of a nameless stretch of desert near the spot where Houston, Texas, used to be. He's the sort of man who savors his privacy; one of the conditions of my interview with him was that I not disclose his location or who lives with him. I can tell you that the place is so far off the grid that there's no ultranet access to speak of and no holograms, lizardmen, or other Legally Recognized Persons about—heck, there are barely any humans out here.

When he opens the door, I see Johnny Manziel toss a couple of plastic vodka bottles discreetly into the trash. He shakes my hand firmly, meets my eyes, but he's wary. He knows what I'm here for, the only reason any reporter would want visit: To talk about the 2014 season of the National Football League, 15 long, strange years ago now.

"I didn't think anyone would remember those days," he says by way of greeting, but of course he's wrong. Every fan of the old Cleveland Browns remembers that bizarre Mark E. Smith slur of a season—the rumors of his drug use, his brilliant but erratic play, the team's best receiver getting suspended for smoking weed (remember, it was 2014), the way he partied with LeBron James the week before the four-interception game that got him benched for good… And then of course the week after that the world learned of the Prometheus Project when the Supermortal revealed itself to the world, and nothing was ever the same again.

"I think I was probably gonna be the best quarterback to ever play the game," Manziel says as he drops a couple radiation pills in his vodka tonic. "But now? Geez, I'm just a regular good ol' boy hoping the Al'Moku don't single me out for Harvesting."

Prediction: 4-12

-Harry Cheadle

Baltimore Ravens - The Who Playing "Can't Explain" in 2014

The Ravens have been in the playoff mix more or less every year since the 2000 season, which is an eternity in football time, but after their 2013 Super Bowl win the core that's sustained them for so long seemed to crumble. Ray Lewis is retired, Ed Reed is gone, Anquan Boldin left for San Francisco and took the team's depth at wide receiver with him, and Ray Rice looked broken down at age 26 last season—and that was before he earned a suspension for beating his wife. Nose tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs are still there to anchor that defense, but they're in their 30s, and the team's recent free agent acquisitions—linebacker Daryl Smith last year, wide receiver Steve Smith this year—are relative graybeards as well. The team is going to have at least a puncher's chance against good teams and will probably be in the wild card hunt at some point, but they're just not as dangerous as they once were.

The Who were dangerous once upon a time too—blowing up drum kits on television, wailing primordial howls, inspiring a generation to do various not-good-for-them things. They can still technically play the same songs they used to, the ones written half a century ago, but that just makes their decline all the more evident—Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend can hit the right notes (well, Townsend can), but when they get on stage they look a couple old guys remembering their past lives.

There's nothing wrong with that, and it's no one's fault—time strips us all of what we once were. Bands burn out or fade away; football teams legendary for their vicious defense going from being loaded with talent to being heavy with veteran savvy to, finally, breaking up and appearing together again only in ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries or Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. The Ravens had a good run, and their best teams might not have gotten the respect they deserved thanks to the Brady-Manning rivalry that's dominated headlines in the AFC for the past decade. But it looks like their era is over.

Prediction: 7-9

-Harry Cheadle

Pittsburgh Steelers - Ashford and Simpson, "Solid as a Rock"

Ashford and Simpson were a husband and wife duo who are probably best known for "Solid as a Rock," which reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the R&B chart. It's a pretty perfect representation of Ben Roethlisberger's relationship with Steelers fans: They've built a foundation over the last decade and "nothing's changed it"—not the rape accusations, the Super Bowl loss (there were those two earlier Super Bowl wins after all), or the back-to-back 8-8 finishes. Yes indeed, "the thrill is still hot, hot, hot."

Big Ben is entering his 11th season, and looks more and more like the giant clock tower that is his namesake with each passing year. He's still capable of moving around in the pocket and avoiding the crushing hits, though he absorbs a few more of those hits now than he used to. He's also, we might as well admit, a good, routinely underrated quarterback who has a great partner in receiver Antonio Brown. The rest of the offense is "developing," as they say in the NFL: They've got young receivers Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley are praying will blossom into viable options, a group of running backs that underwhelmed last season, and an offensive line that is often standing around going, "Sorry, Ben! Run that wa… oh, whoops, he got you. Dang." At 32, Roethlisberger might have to do more improvising as plays break down than ever before. That would be less than ideal.

Still, Pittsburgh has a dependable quarterback and a Dick LeBeau-coached defense, two very comfortable things to have in a league where wrenching year-to-year swings are pretty common. If another year of watching the Steelers wear down inferior while losing to elite squads seems a little routine, a little drab, well, you haven't listened to enough six-minute 80s pop songs.

Solid… Solid as a Rock!

Solid… Solid as a Rock!

Solid… Solid as a Rock!

Solid… Solid as a Rock!

Solid… Solid as a Rock!

Projected record: 10-6

-David Matthews

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Baltimore Ravens
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The Who
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