I've figured out the secret to enjoying sports-related entertainment: Lower your expectations.
When the NFL announced that it would be kicking off its season with a musical extravaganza on the Mall in Washington before the Jets-Redskins game, I figured it would be horrible. The idea behind the show is to turn Opening Night into another secular holiday, like Super Bowl Sunday, and I envisioned the usual drill, familiar from so many Olympics Opening Ceremonies, All-Star pregame shows and Super Bowl halftimes. There would be French horn music, there would be children of all nations running willy-nilly while twirling ribbons, there would be fireworks and incomprehensible narration. "Ladies and gentlemen! Join us now as the NFL pays tribute to the discovery of fire!"
Well, "NFL Kickoff Live" surprised me pleasantly by being not so terrible at all. There were no ribbons, no French horns -- or are they now called freedom horns? -- and no pointless little story line. It was just music, some of it pretty good, most of it lip-synched, and none of it having any connection to any kind of theme, whether patriotic or pigskinesque. It wasn't a particularly good hour of entertainment, but compared to what I expected, it was dynamite.
I thought at the start that my fears would be confirmed. Old quarterbacks Joe Theismann and Joe Namath came out in their old Redskins and Jets jerseys and made with some Sonny and Cher-caliber humor. "I hear the Jets are looking for a quarterback!" Namath said with a big old wink to the crowd. Oh ho!
Theismann noted that there were 20,000 service members present. That was a markdown from the advertised figure of 25,000. What happened to those other 5,000? They were cut by the armed forces in a salary cap move. Just trying to get in on the zany fun here.
A Marine corporal was brought up to awkwardly say thank you to all of the men and women in uniform all over the world and introduce the first musical act. He was visibly trembling. Facing a hostile enemy on the field of battle is one thing, but foisting the lame-o pop punk stylings of Good Charlotte on one's own compatriots is enough to make even one of the few good men quake in his spit-shines.
But the wacky shenanigans ended with Joe and Joe. After that it was just musical acts, each introduced by a former player teamed up with a representative of one of the service branches from the musical act's home state. It was like an awards show without the canned patter from presenters. And the awards.
All of the hype leading up to the event was about Britney Spears, fresh off her kiss with Madonna at an MTV awards show last week, and folks, can we as a nation please get over that? Holy cow, people. I saw Britney interviewed by Tucker Carlson on CNN this week about that kiss, for crying out loud. She spent the entire interview smacking a piece of gum like a third-string cheerleader. I couldn't help thinking that about $175,000 worth of image consultants had decided that that particular stick of gum at that particular moment would be the perfect career move for her.
But anyway, Spears surprisingly appeared at the midway point of the show, with Aerosmith following her as the clear headliner and crowd favorite. Britney debuted her new single, the appropriately titled "Me Against the Music," in an unflattering outfit featuring a pair of black slacks and her official bare midriff, presented by Pepsi Vanilla. As with Good Charlotte, shots of the crowd, which were used sparingly, showed not a single one of its 130,000 heads nodding in time to the dull music. That's not surprising because Britney's big fans are not hanging around on the Mall in Washington at 8:30 p.m. on a school night.
Spears -- I don't know if you've heard this, but she kissed Madonna on TV the other day! Oh, Mary! -- donned a fedora and pin-striped suit coat for her second number, a medley that started with "Hit Me Baby One More Time," the official anthem of Houston Texans quarterback David Carr. Whoa, hang on. Two of her dancers, clad in sexy Jets and Redskins uniforms, peeled off her slacks to reveal a very, very small pair of black shorts with white trim. Well, at least that gave the troops something to enjoy.
All in all, the crowd seemed to enjoy Aerosmith and Mary J. Blige the most. I wasn't aware that Colin Quinn played drums for Aerosmith, so I learned something there. And I like Mary J. Blige. She's a rare pop princess who conveys emotions in her music other than "I love, love, love the sound of my voice." She's light on the vocal gymnastics and choreography, heavy on the singing like hell. The crowd shots were still pretty sparing, but whenever the peripatetic camera focused briefly on audience members, people seemed to be enjoying themselves. Most of those 20,000 troops, and I'm thinking a solid majority of a football pregame TV audience, can enjoy Mary J. Blige on more than one level, if you know what I mean.
The show ended with Aretha Franklin lip-synching the national anthem, leading a nation to ask the musical question "Why is Aretha Franklin lip-synching?" But at least she was wearing a nice pantsuit instead of one of those bejeweled ball gowns that make her look like a battleship.
And just like that, before you knew it, it was football season, with the Redskins and the Jets playing a surprisingly crisp first half and a sludgy second half. The Redskins won 16-13 on a field-goal drive in the final two minutes. New "Monday Night Football" sideline reporter Lisa Guerrero showed that she's perfect for her useless job by asking Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey about his pregame conversation with former teammate Laveranues Coles. Ramsey was confused by the question because Coles, a former Jet, is his current teammate, and it was injured Jets quarterback Chad Pennington who had had that conversation. Back to you, Al!
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Week 1 picks [PERMALINK]
The readers have spoken and by a 3-2 margin they say I should just pick the winners of each weekend's NFL games, as opposed to picking against the point spread. Good, because the whole point spread thing bores me. Sorry, gamblers and people looking for something to make the Bengals game interesting.
Here are my picks for Week 1, with the winner in all caps and snarky comments where applicable. "What the heck" will be a weekly feature.
NEW ENGLAND at Buffalo: Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy, shockingly cut by the Patriots this week, signed with the Bills, where he joins fellow New England castoff Drew Bledsoe. The potential story line is so great -- Milloy picks off a pass in victory, gains revenge against old team! -- it can't possibly work out.
Jacksonville at CAROLINA: Jack Del Rio loses his coaching debut. How long will it take before he pulls the trigger and begins the Byron Leftwich era?
Denver at CINCINNATI: What the heck pick of the week.
INDIANAPOLIS at Cleveland
Arizona at DETROIT: The Mariucci era begins with a lovely little stinker of a matchup.
Minnesota at GREEN BAY: Readers of this column find the Packers to be vastly overrated and headed for a fall, with the Vikings taking the North.
SAN DIEGO at Kansas City: The Chiefs are critical darlings this year. They'll believe their press clippings and stumble against a team that tends to start fast.
Houston at MIAMI
St. Louis at N.Y. GIANTS: Can Kurt Warner survive the national anthem without breaking his hand?
BALTIMORE at Pittsburgh: Can Tommy Maddox survive the Ravens' pass rush without breaking anything?
ATLANTA at Dallas: The Cowboys are actually favored in this game, thanks to new coach Bill Parcells and the injury to Falcons quarterback Mike Vick. The Falcons will miss Vick a lot, but I'm picking them to reward owner Arthur Blank for agreeing with me that the preseason is too long.
Chicago at SAN FRANCISCO: The Dennis Erickson era opens with a reminder that mediocre .500-ish coaches do win about half the time.
New Orleans at SEATTLE: Touchdown!
Oakland at TENNESSEE: A repeat of last year's conference championship game and, no doubt you'll be reminded, a possible preview of this year's. I think not, but it's certainly a real possibility.
Tampa Bay at PHILADELPHIA: See Oakland at Tennessee. New stadium boost for the Eagles.
Season record: 0-1
- - - - - - - - - - - -