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A man wearing a bow tie once said football embodied the two worst elements of American culture: violence and committee meetings. Considering that this man was George Will, that's remarkably funny. And I've found myself thinking about Will's sentiment a lot as of late, mostly because I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to deduce the nature of existence by watching football games. (I've never been a practical person.) I've been dwelling on one particular pigskin-related question, and I suspect this question might be semi-meaningful (at least in regard to the question of how football reflects life).
The question is this: Whatever happened to barefoot kicking?
Unless you were born post-"Scarface," I have no doubt that you remember this era of football with absolute clarity; during the 1980s, barefoot field goal kicking was so popular that it became unremarkable. Tony Franklin of the Eagles and Rich Karlis of the Broncos were the two best barefoot kickers, but other like-minded goofballs were everywhere. Mike Lansford of the Rams kicked PATs and field goals without a shoe, but he put his cleats back on for kickoffs. John Goodson punted barefoot for the Steelers, shanking a crucial punt in the cold at Three Rivers Stadium in a 1982 playoff game that helped the Chargers come back in the fourth quarter. Moreover, I recall numerous barefoot kickers from college games during the decade; on occasion, you would even see a barefoot kicker in a high school game. When my friends and I played 4-on-4 school-yard football during fourth-grade recess, cocky kids would remove their moon boots and club the Nerf in stocking feet, even when the ground was packed with snow. Kicking a football shoeless was an acceptable, reasonable notion. Which was pretty insane, since no one ever delivered an adequate explanation as to how this provided any advantage whatsoever.
There were two schools as to why people kicked barefoot. Neither made any sense. The first was that it provided the kicker with a better "feel" for the ball itself and that this gave him greater control of its trajectory; I recall an argument that claimed making a kicker wear a shoe was like making a quarterback wear a mitten. I can only assume this argument was made by people who threw like Garo Yepremian. The second theory was that shoes and socks absorb kinetic energy, so kicking flesh-to-leather created more torque; proponents of this hypothesis claim barefoot kicking naturally disappeared after the advent of the American soccer shoe (soccer cleats have less padding at the point of contact). I can only assume this argument was made by Kenneth G. Wilson, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for physics. Frankly, I don't think anyone ever knew why barefoot kicking was supposed to work (including Jeff Wilkins, who was still experimenting with this voodoo in 2002). Barefoot kicking was just something people tried because other people were trying it, too. And then they all stopped. And in football, this happens all the time. It seems to drive the nature of the game.
Compared with basketball and baseball, football is a conservative idiom; this is one of the reasons it's more popular than those other two sports combined. But football is conservative in the way Ronald Reagan was a conservative; football makes conservatism feel futuristic. More than any other league, the NFL adores new technology (instant replay, radios inside the QBs' helmets, computer-generated first-down markers for television, etc.). It worships innovation. It consciously wants to evolve, so it madly embraces any new philosophy. This is why every era of football is defined by its fads. In the 1970s, teams used a 3-4 defense only if their defense was flawed. During the early '80s, that assumption abruptly changed; the new objective was to cover the field with linebackers. Suddenly, nobody was playing a 4-3 except Dallas.1 But then the '85 Bears killed people with the 46 defense, so every coordinator decided he had to create his own version of the 46. As a result, the only teams that still played 3-4 were the ones with substantial defensive flaws,2 which was exactly how things were originally. Now, I realize there were subtle reasons for all of those progressions. But did any of those reasons really matter? Every team was still just throwing its best 11 carnivores on the turf and trying to wreck the quarterback. You can re-create a defense 1,000 times, but you can't make dudes disappear; the Bears were unblockable regardless how they lined up. The larger explanation for why this sequence happened was simply a product of how football operates: Absolutely any idea is a brilliant idea, until it isn't.
Similar narratives happened with the West Coast offense, the Run-and-Shoot offense and the Fun 'n' Gun offense. It also happened with the premise of having two tight ends, having no tight ends and turning tight ends into H-backs (who are actually just fullbacks, but "fullbacks" are no longer popular). I suspect this will happen again with the zone blocking philosophies of Denver and Atlanta. This season, I see more and more college teams employing an awkward formation where the quarterback stands in a shallow version of the shotgun while the two offset running backs line up two yards behind him; this seems to have as many disadvantages as advantages, but it feels different, so it (temporarily) seems valid. The Texas Tech Red Raiders have a paradigm-shifting passing game in which conventional logic is reversed: Instead of requiring wide receivers to memorize hundreds of unique plays from a handful of simple formations, they run a small number of similar pass patterns from a large collection of unorthodox formations, thereby generating the same degree of complexity. This strikes me as brilliant, although I'm not exactly sure why; I suppose my appreciation for Mike Leach merely indicates why I'm the kind of person who likes to think about football.
And yet of all these examples, the one that still seems most prescient is the bygone period of barefoot kicking. It was a popular innovation that never made any sense to anyone. Even when Franklin nailed a 59-yard moon shot in 1979, he looked like an absurd hillbilly. But you know what? Nobody cared. It was (ahem) the "style of the time." Somebody had to try something, even if no one knew why. And that's another reason football is so amazingly, profoundly, unilaterally popular: We can all relate to the reality of its collective confusion. I mean, how many things do you do at your job simply because that's just what people with your job always do? How often do you find yourself following a trend you don't care about at all? How many people trust themselves more than they trust other people? At the end of the day, we're all just looking around and guessing how to live. And if that process convinces us to fill out TPS reports and listen to quasi-Queen albums from My Chemical Romance and drink bottled water,3 I suppose briefly kicking field goals without shoes isn't so surprising.
1 Regardless what was in vogue, Tom Landry refused to abandon his archaic "4-3 flex," which meant Randy White was always trapped in a four-point stance. Over White's 14-season career, I bet this cost him 25 sacks.
2 This, I realize, is something of an overstatement: There have been a handful of teams in the past 15 years (chiefly the New England Patriots and the mid-'90s Pittsburgh Steelers) that have gone to the Super Bowl with 3-4 defenses, and there have always been SEC teams that used 3-4 alignments to string out the veer option. However, the fact remains that it was briefly assumed (during most of the 1980s, and especially in the AFC) that the 3-4 was simply better than the 4-3, even though no one could justify why that was.
3 Cross-dressing U.K. comedian Eddie Izzard has some great material about this specific point. "Do you know how stupid Americans are?" he asks with a faux French accent. "They're so stupid, I bet they will pay money for water."
Chuck Klosterman, whose latest book is "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas," is a columnist for Esquire and a regular contributor to Page 2.