Pig skin? Fried pork rinds? Judge Bill Gibron detects a football-related conspiracy hatched by the pork industry!
Are you ready for some football?
Do you remember the Killer B's? Air Coryell? The twisted fun of the Terrible Towel, or the omnipresent pressure of the Orange Crush? Surely, the Hogs or the Steel Curtain remind you of halcyon Sundays gone by, and the wonder of Billy "White Shoes" Johnson makes you long for a seat on the 50-yard line? Or maybe you need a reminder of when football was a sport, when players executed as a team and saved the sideline celebrations for historic, not histrionic, acts.
Before it was a brand name, the sport of gridiron gladiators was a hometown treasure, a tradition that followed the 20th century as it matured and modified its values and vision. And the Super Bowl was its ultimate celebration. A contest created in 1966 as the result of negotiations between the time-tested National Football League and the upstart spoiler American Football League (over player contracts, no less), it wasn't until 1970 that the game officially gained the now well-known moniker. But the event first staged on January 28, 1967 would redefine the sports world in a way few proceedings could even imagine. It would take a couple of decades and a substantial shift in the Boys of Summer mindset, but soon the Super Bowl was the preeminent athletic spectacle, a winner-take-all test of man and mantle that didn't need a series to settle.
Over the course of football's modern age, NFL Films has been right along the sidelines, camera in hand, to collect visual memories for the television scrapbooks they created for the league each year. Warner Bros. now collects the best of this material, as well as summaries of each Super Bowl, in a package entitled Super Bowl XI-XX: Collector's Set.
Divided among five discs (two seasons per pressing) and offering both an overview of the annual highlights as well as a breakdown of the big game, Super Bowl XI-XX: Collector's Set is a true sports lover's delight. Among the moments recalled are the following monumental match-ups:
• Super Bowl XI
• Super Bowl XII
• Super Bowl XIII
• Super Bowl XIV
• Super Bowl XV
• Super Bowl XVI
• Super Bowl XVII
• Super Bowl XVIII
• Super Bowl XIX
• Super Bowl XX
Let's face it: nobody does sports footage as well as NFL Films. True, with the recent rebirth of basketball (thanks mostly to a little incidental icon named Michael Jordan), the NBA can put together an impressive highlight reel. But no one gets to the heart of a game faster and more profoundly than Steve and Ed Sabol and their long-term association with the National Football League. Behind the trademark narration of Harry Kalas and John Facenda—replaced following Facenda's death in the early '80s by Brad Crandall and Ross LaFontaine—NFL Films sets the standard, because they understand that football fans want great plays positioned with the strategy that made them spectacular. Sure, seeing a superstar dunk over and over again, or a home run ball sailing over the warning track time after time, is intense and exciting. But NFL Films takes this action-packed ideal to dizzying heights. Football is a sport of group, not individual, accomplishments, and focusing in on how 11 men on either side of the ball interact to create a classic play—even if it is the efforts of one man overcoming several obstacles—is both electrifying and interesting, shedding a whole new detailed light on the sport. Even when trying to wrap up a 16-week season played by 28 teams in dozens of locales around the nation, the This is the NFL / NFL '79 shows are complex and dense. The fact that we can now re-experience them on DVD is a tremendous thrill.
As a second in a series of sets from Warner Home Video, Super Bowl XI-XX: Collector's Set is a remarkable trip back to the formative years of the Super Bowl, back before the game was the unofficial national holiday it has now become. True, you miss out on the beginnings, the AFL/NFL dynamic and the legendary names from the past (Lombardi, Namath, Unitas). But a quick trip to the store to buy Super Bowl I-X: Collector's Set will cure that. Besides, after witnessing the wealth of information here, it would seem foolish not to own the entire series. Each disc offers two seasons' worth of highs and lows, underdog determination and dramatic disintegrations. About the only anticlimactic issue that arises in the presentation of this material is that the initial season overview spoils the second half of the show. It reveals the winner of the big game and the plays that made it unforgettable before we even have a chance to see the whole story. Like being told the ending before we get to the final chapter, we lose a little of the emotion and power each and every time.
Perhaps the best thing about a set like the Super Bowl series is the chance to see hundreds of the forgotten foot soldiers in the emerging American pastime, names relegated to the back pages of NFL history. Conrad Dobler, Steve Grogan, Danny White, Billy Sims, Steve Bartkowski, Bert Jones, and Brian Sipe all played important parts in their teams' trips to the Super Bowl, but few have had a name that lasted in memory beyond a season or an individual decade, especially when matched up against Marino, Montana, Stabler, Staubach, Theismann, Dickerson, Allen, and Dorsett—individuals you recognize, even if only by last name. The hierarchy of head coaches also makes for an interesting rogues' gallery overview. For every Gibbs, Landry, Shula, or Madden, there's a Rutigliano, a Flores, a Gregg, or a Malavasi—equally forgotten members of memorable clubs. And if we pay close attention, we also get the exact moment when the Super Bowl entered the modern media era. When Mike Ditka took his anarchic Chicago Bears to the 1986 championship, the outrageous characters on the team—from jazzy Jim McMahon and the overweight wonder William "The Refrigerator" Perry to the solid "46" defense led by Mike Singletary and Richard Dent—took America by storm. Re-experiencing the Bears' moment in the limelight recalls why, 18 years later, we have the MTV-meets-Wal-Mart madness of the new Super Bowl, version 2.0.
With the producers obviously unconcerned with the finer points of preservation, some of the NFL Films footage here really shows its age. Colors are flat and faded, and several times the image appears desaturated and dark. Still, for archival artifacts from almost 30 years ago, the 1.33:1 full screen transfers are pretty good. You will see lots of dirt, damage, and lack of detail. But there have been far worse sports DVDs released. Sonically, the Dolby Digital Stereo (mono is mostly what you get though) sounds nice and distortion-free. When we get to the more modern elements in the extras, the resonance really comes alive.
As for bonus features, each season is given a pair of additional highlights focusing on a different aspect of the year's Super Bowl participants. For example, in the XV/XVI games, Jim Plunkett, Wilbert Montgomery, Ronnie Lott, and Anthony Munoz all get featurettes. For XIX/XX, Dan Marino, the entire 49ers team, the Bears explosive "46" defense, and the Patriots' exciting ride to the championship are detailed. Combined with a guidebook that outlines all the program elements from the game (players, substitutes), this is a solid, incredibly comprehensive package. In actuality, the inherent lack of space on a DVD accounts for the reason why no more than two and one-half hours of material are contained on each disc.
It's probably a safe bet that when, 18 years from now, another critic takes on the Super Bowl XXI-XL set (encompassing games from 1997 to 2007), he or she will lament over not remembering who Jon Gruden was, or why Peyton Manning was so important to the Indianapolis Colts. Indeed, many names we now know will make their immediate impacts, enjoy their short-attention-span post-sports careers, and then slowly fade into the mists of memory. Thankfully, Warner and NFL Films will be around to capture these meaningful memoirs (as well as men) for all time. Super Bowl XI-XX: Collector's Set is a great reference guide to football, not only as a sport, but also to the nearly forgotten fellows who played it, and made it great.
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