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NFL

A Miserable Football Game Is A Joy Forever

Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and 49ers defensive back Emmanuel Moseley compete for a pass in the rain on Sunday Night Football.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“Bombogenesis” is a technical term, which is delightful enough in its own right that I am compelled to remark upon it. All that really means is that it refers to a specific thing, although in this sense it could also be said that “Megadeth” is a technical term insofar as it refers to a band with Dave Mustaine in it. What “bombogenesis” refers to, as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration describes it, is when a cyclone rapidly becomes more intense over a 24-hour period; “this can happen when a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass, such as air over warm ocean waters.”

To make it less abstract, this was happening in the Pacific on Sunday night. To make it even more specific, it is why the Sunday Night Football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers was such a hilarious, miserable mess. What was always going to be bad weather—before it was a Bomb Cyclone, it was merely an Atmospheric River—got much worse, and so the lamest week of the NFL season got its apotheosis. In retrospect, the footage of port-a-potties scooting hideously across the rainswept Levi’s Stadium parking lot in the wind qualified as a real tone-setter.

There are a great many ways that NFL weeks can be bad, and we mostly got the same one in faintly different flavors on Sunday. Of the 11 NFL games played yesterday, just one was decided by one score or less. The close game was between the Falcons and Dolphins, and while it was a decently entertaining game with a decently entertaining finish, it was finally and inarguably a game between the Falcons and Dolphins. There was some notably busy flubbery threaded through the rest of the week, and the Bears were awful enough in a game that a lot of the country saw to justify firing their coach, although he seems to have found a bulletproof rhetorical workaround where that is concerned. But there was not really a great deal of football worth watching.

This would be a nice place to say that the Sunday Night Football game between the Colts and 49ers redeemed all that laughably lopsided action, if indeed that had happened. Lord knows I’d love to be writing about that game instead of the one they actually played. Instead, they condensed and clarified and amplified the worst of the weekend, in a game played entirely during a bomb cyclone that was busily beating the stuffing out of Northern California and under a gale warning. Everyone involved looked miserable; the two teams combined to fumble seven times; every coach and official that appeared on the television broadcast would not have been any more distressed or abjectly wet if they had just wiped out on American Ninja Warrior. The Colts won, 30-18. It all absolutely sucked, and so was perfect.

Good football is extremely good, and the grinding lopsided football that defined Sunday’s games was not really that. But bad football is weird, and while it doesn’t offer the immediate pleasure of a game between two competent teams playing well, it offers pleasures all its own. The field in Santa Clara remained admirably playable despite being the heavy rainfall, but whatever was lost in terms of dramatic mud-related hijinks or avant-garde puddling—a similar weather event in Landover during a WFT game would have delivered a second half that played out like the last act of Apocalypse Now—was more than made up for in both mistakes made and the ambient shadow of mistakes to come. The ball was hard to catch, kick, throw, and hold; these tend to be important football actions. Jonathan Taylor lost a fumble on Indianapolis’s first play from scrimmage and duffed another later in the game, and still delivered one of the evening’s best individual performances. He fumbled twice in the game, and lost one; so did starting quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Jimmy Garoppolo. No one was having fun.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Not everyone was equally bad, to be fair. Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. caught all four of his targets, including a game-sealing jump-ball score, and both Taylor and Niners lead back Elijah Mitchell were productive despite the fact that they were effectively running through a car wash. Wentz was mostly good and Garoppolo was mostly lousy after the first quarter, but both delivered moments of near-avant-garde badness that both degraded and elevated the proceedings.

This is The Bad Football Game Difference; the good plays are important, but the bad ones are significant, and the implicit promise of something bizarre and inexplicable and inexcusable happening creates its own sort of tension. It’s not that weird football is better than good football, because it very much is not. But just in the latent psychedelia of its promise, and in the same perverse way that a Uwe Boll movie might be more compelling in its brazen ineptitude than a Paul Thomas Anderson movie would for all its fussy mastery, it can be just as watchable.

And that, more than anything like fun football, was what this game delivered. Mostly the teams scuffled and plodded and looked unhappy to be working outdoors during an objectively biblical weather event, but then they would stir to life and do something glitchy and implausible. Wentz’s main contribution in this regard was a red-zone pick in the first half that could be described as Favreian in precisely the same way that four drunk divorced guys trying to play “Hollywood Nights” in an Ypsilanti bar qualifies as “Literally Bob Seger And The Silver Bullet Band.”

All of this was at least in part the result of the weather, but all of it also happened within the microclimate of cynical-miserable suck within which the whole game unfolded. Wentz had 150 yards passing, but the Colts gained an astonishing 97 yards on pass-interference calls; the 49ers converted just one of 11 third-down opportunities. The proportions were uncannily off, and it just stayed like that. On the interception that effectively ended San Francisco’s night, just after the two-minute warning, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said “Oops” more or less as soon as the ball left Jimmy Garoppolo’s hand. Garoppolo was throwing in the direction of one receiver and four Colts defensive backs, but the oops-iness of it was obvious—the pass weaved and wobbled like a fatally compromised dirigible before landing in the hands of Colts safety Khari Willis.

It was, astonishingly, one of the very few passes thrown on Sunday night that looked like a pass thrown during a bomb cyclone that featured gale-force winds. It looked more or less as ridiculous and doomed as it was. For everything that the NFL can be—it regularly delivers a volume and intensity of athletic mastery in a given week that would shame the output of whole decades in the previous century—it is still fundamentally and blessedly extremely stupid. The league represents the inexcusable and amoral apex of American cynicism and from one moment to the next the zenith of human athletic possibility, and the New York Jets also play in that league. When it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s bad in the ways that Sunday Night Football was bad, it’s something more profound—everything a sport could be, and also whatever this was.