"Eating the Dinosaur": Football
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman's new book, "Eating the Dinosaur," copyright 2009 by Chuck Klosterman. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1. As I type this sentence, I'm watching the Michigan Wolverines play the Minnesota Golden Gophers in football. Michigan is bad this year and the Gophers are better than expected, but Michigan is winning easily. They're winning by running the same play over and over and over again. Very often, it seems to be the only effective play they have. It has certain similarities to the single-wing offenses from the 1950s, but the application is new and different. It's called the read option.
As of this moment in 2008, the read option is by far the most pervasive offensive play in college football and an increasingly popular gadget play in pro football, especially for the Miami Dolphins (who run it by moving quarterback Chad Pennington to wide receiver and using running back Ronnie Brown at QB, a formation commonly called the Wildcat). If somebody makes a movie about American life a hundred years from now and wants to show a fictionalized image of what football looked like, this is the play they should try to cinematically replicate1. Every week of autumn, I watch between nine and fifteen hours of football; depending on who's playing, I probably see this play eighty to a hundred and fifty times a weekend. Michigan has just run it three times in succession. This play defines the relationship between football and modernity; it's What Interesting Football Teams Are Doing Now. And it's helped me rethink the relationship between football and conservatism, a premise I had long conceded but never adequately questioned.
2. Okay ... Let me begin by recognizing that you -- the reader of this book -- might not know much about football. In fact, you might hate football, and you might be annoyed that it's even included in this collection. I'm guessing at least fifty potential buyers flipped through the pages of this book inside a store, noticed there was a diagram of a football play on page 125, and decided not to buy it. This is a problem I have always had to manage: Roughly 60 percent of the people who read my books have a near-expert understanding of sports, but the remaining 40 percent have no interest whatsoever. As such, I will understand if you skip to the next essay, which is about ABBA. But before you give up, let me abridge the essence of the previous paragraph: The aforementioned "read option" is an extremely simple play. The main fellow for the offense (this would be the quarterback, whom you might remember as a popular guy from high school who dated lots of girls with bleached hair) receives the ball deep in the backfield and "reads" the weakside defensive end ("read" is the football term for "looks at and considers," while "weakside" refers to whatever side of the field has fewer offensive players). If the defensive player attacks upfield, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs it himself, essentially attacking where the defensive end used to be (and where a running lane now exists). If the defensive end "stays home" (which is the football term for "remains cautious and orthodox"), there's usually no running lane for the quarterback, so the QB hands the ball to the running back moving in the opposite direction (which is generally the strong side). Basically, the read option is just the quarterback making a choice based on the circumstance -- he either runs the ball himself in one direction, or he hands the ball off in the opposing direction.
Now, why should this matter to you (or anyone)? Here is the simplest answer: Twenty-five years ago, the read option didn't exist. Coaches would have given a dozen reasons why it couldn't be used. Ten years ago, it was a play of mild desperation, most often used by teams who couldn't compete physically. But now almost everyone uses it. It's the vortex of an offensive scheme that has become dominant. But ten years from now -- or even less, probably -- this play will have disappeared completely. In 2018, no one will run it, because every team will be running something else. It will have been replaced with new thinking. And this is football's interesting contradiction: It feels like a conservative game. It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have -- it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology2, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal. If football was a politician, it would be some kind of reverse libertarian: staunchly conservative on social issues, but freethinking on anything related to policy. So the current upsurge of the read option is symbolic of something unrelated to the practice of football; it's symbolic of the nature of football and how that idea is misinterpreted because of its iconography.
So there you go.
If you'd still rather get to the s--- about ABBA, you should go there now.
3. The single most radical aspect of football is something most casual (and even most serious) fans take for granted: Football added the forward pass. It was an extraneous addition to the original game, implemented long after the sport had gained national attention. There is no corollary for this in any other meaningful spectator sport. The DH rule in baseball and the three-point line in hoops are negligible when compared to the impact of passing; it would be like golf suddenly allowing tackling on the putting green. By now, watching football on television is mostly the act of watching passing -- in 2008, the NFL's worst passing team (the Oakland Raiders) still gained more yards through the air than all but five teams gained rushing. At the NCAA level in '08, seven of the starting quarterbacks in the Big 12 Conference completed 65 percent of all the passes they attempted, a rate of success that made running the ball seem almost wasteful. Passing is what drives the sport and passing is what sells the sport. But passing only exists because of violence.
Imagine football at the turn of the twentieth century, before passing was part of the game: How would it look? The entire game is contained in the middle of the field, away from the sidelines. There's almost no benefit in aligning defensive players away from the ball, because there's no way for the offense to take advantage of their tight proximity. Instead of ten yards for a first down, teams only need five. As a result, every single play is like a goal-line surge during a driving blizzard -- the best strategy is to simply pound the ball straight ahead. And because this is the nineteenth century (which means equipment is essentially nonexistent), football is a laughably violent undertaking. It's nothing but a series of collisions, sporadically interrupted by one or two touchdowns and a whole lot of punting. In 1905, eighteen college kids die from playing football. President Theodore Roosevelt sees a photograph of Swarthmore lineman Bob Maxwell walking off the field after a game against Penn, and he's so utterly pummeled and disgusting that Roosevelt (despite being a fan) decides that football needs to be outlawed. This becomes a hot-button issue for a year. Finally, Roosevelt decides that football can continue to exist, but only if some of the rules are changed. One change increases the distance needed for a first down. Another legalizes passing, which has been going on illegally (but often unpenalized) for decades. Essentially, Roosevelt decriminalizes the passing game. And this decriminalization actually makes the rules of football easier to comprehend: Previously, it had been unclear how referees were expected to enforce a penalty for forward passing -- there wasn't a rule against passing, much as there isn't any rule against making your slotback invisible. How do you legislate against something no one had previously imagined? When an illegal forward pass was used by Yale against Princeton in 1876, the ref allegedly decided to allow the play to stand after flipping a coin. Action had evolved faster than thought.
Interestingly, Roosevelt's rule changes did not significantly alter the violent nature of college football; by 1909, the number of nationwide deaths from football had risen to thirty-three. But these changes totally reinvented the intellectual potential for football. It was like taking the act of punching someone in the face and shaping it into boxing. Suddenly, there were multiple dimensions to offense -- the ball could rapidly be advanced on both its X and Y axis. The field was technically the same size, but it was vaster. You could avoid the brutality of trench warfare by flying over it. It liberalized the sport without eliminating its conservative underpinnings: Soldiers were still getting their skulls hammered in the kill zone, but there was now a progressive, humanitarian way to approach the offensive game plan. Size mattered less (Knute Rockne's 1913 Notre Dame squad was able to famously slay a much bigger Army juggernaut by out-passing them), but it was still a game where blocking and tackling appeared to be the quintessence of what it was about. It was at this point that football philosophy forked: There were now two types of football coaches, as diametrically opposed (and as profoundly connected) as Goldwater and McGovern. By portraying itself as the former while operating as the latter, football became the most successful enterprise in American sports history.
4. As of this morning, I am one of only forty million Americans who receive the NFL Network in their living room. This is less than the number of Americans who get BBC America, the Golf Channel, or VH1 Classic. The NFL Network has only existed for five years. However, I can tell it's going to succeed. I can tell by the sheer amount of time I end up watching it during the day, even when the network is doing nothing except repeating and promoting the same information I didn't need to know yesterday. Because of the NFL Network, I've been convinced to consume information about issues I previously saw as ridiculous. I (now) watch the NFL draft combine every spring. I am (now) acutely aware of what's happening in the off-season owners' meetings. One night in July, I watched the Seattle Seahawks work on a seven-on-seven passing drill for forty minutes. I wouldn't classify any of these things as phenomena I care about, but they are things I still watch, particularly when they compete against other pre-recorded TV shows that don't feel like news, despite the fact that the Seahawks' seven-on-seven passing drill isn't "news" any more than Panda Nursery.
What the NFL has realized is that they have no better marketing tool than the game itself. Every other sport tries to fool us. Baseball sells itself as some kind of timeless, historical pastime that acts as the bridge to a better era of American life, an argument that now seems beyond preposterous. The NBA tries to create synergy with anything that might engage youth culture (hip-hop, abstract primordial competition, nostalgia for the 1980s, the word "amazing," Hurricane Katrina, etc.). NASCAR connects itself to red state contrarianism. Soccer aligns itself with forward-thinking globalists who enjoy fandom more than sports. But football only uses football. They are the product they sell. Unlike David Stern's failed vision for the NBA, the NFL Network does not try to expand its empire by pushing the sport toward nonchalant audiences with transitory interest; it never tries to trick anybody into watching something they don't already like. Instead, the NFL Network's goal is to enliven its base. It solely tries to (a) make football essential to people, and (b) make football more essential to those who are already invested. The casual fan does not matter. In essence, the NFL Network works exactly like FOX News: It stays on message and invents talking points for its core constituency to absorb. If Donovan McNabb is temporarily benched for Kevin Kolb during week ten of the season, that decision is turned into a collection of questions for football people to ponder until Sunday. How will McNabb react? Is his career at a crossroads? Has Eagles coach Andy Reid lost control of his offense? How will this impact your fantasy team? These are the ideas football fans are supposed to talk about during the run-up to week eleven, and the NFL Network ensures that those debates will be part of the public discourse. It does not matter that McNabb did not lose his job or if the Eagles are out of playoff contention. By inventing and galvanizing the message, the NFL Network (and by extension the NFL) can always deliver the precise product people want. They construct how I think about pro football.
This is the genius of the NFL, and it is how they came to power long before they had their own network: The league can always make people think they're having the specific experience they desire, even if they're actually experiencing the opposite. Pete Rozelle -- the greatest sports commissioner in world history -- did this better than anyone. He convinced America that football was conservative. During the 1970s, he tried to stop NFL players from having long locks and facial hair, and he mostly succeeded (and even when he failed -- as with the Jets' Joe Namath and the miscreants on the Raiders -- those failures worked to the league's advantage by appealing to the antiauthority minority). He created a seamless relationship with NFL Films, an organization that specialized in cinematically lionizing the most old-school elements of the game (blood, mud, the frozen breath of Fran Tarkenton, Jack Lambert's missing teeth, etc.). He fostered the idea of the Dallas Cowboys as "America's team," led by a devout Catholic quarterback who had served in Vietnam. He made football replace baseball in every meaningful, nationalistic way. And he did this while simultaneously convincing all the league's owners to adopt revenue sharing, arguably the most successful form of socialism in U.S. history. The reason the NFL is so dominant is because the NFL is basically Marxist. This was Rozelle's greatest coup, and everybody knows it. But you'd never guess that from watching the NFL Network. Marxism is not a talking point.
And that's smart, too. The mechanics of distraction are not to be seen.
For the past fifteen years, the face of Old World pro football has been Brett Favre. He was the most beloved sports media figure I'd ever witnessed. The adoration was inescapable. Favre has always been among my favorite players, but even I had a hard time listening to broadcasters rave about his transcendent grit3. The rhetoric never evolved: "He just loves to play the game. He just loves to throw the old pigskin around the old backyard. He just wears Wrangler jeans and forgets to shave. Sure, he throws a few picks now and then, but that's just because he's a gunslinger. That's just Brett being Brett." He was so straightforward and authentic that analysts were unable to discuss Brett Favre without using the word just somewhere in the sentence. He was the human incarnation of how the NFL hopes to portray itself -- as a collection of unpretentious throwbacks who still manage to thrive inside a civilized, nonwarrior society. He directly appealed to the self-righteous, reactionary mentality of the American sports media. Favre is football, or at least he seems to be. And the operative word here is seems. He seems essential, but he isn't. The men who truly dictate the reality of modern football are not like Brett Favre; the men who dictate the reality of modern football are generally classified as nuts.
2a. This is another message for non-football followers who are nonetheless reading this essay out of literary obligation, mild interest, or sheer boredom: You might consider skipping most of the next section. Just skim down to the last paragraph in 3A and continue on from there. Thanks.
3a. Right now, the most interesting coach in America is Mike Leach of Texas Tech, a former lawyer who's obsessed with pirates and UFOs and grizzly bears. He never played football at the college level and barely played in high school. But his offensive attack at Texas Tech is annually the best in the country, and it seems to be the best no matter who his players happen to be. The Red Raiders play football the way eleven-year-old boys play Xbox: They throw on almost every down, they only punt when the situation is desperate, and they'll call the same play over and over and over again. The Texas Tech linemen use unnaturally wide line splits and the quarterback lines up in the shotgun, even when the offense is inside the five-yard line. If you describe the Red Raiders' style of play to any traditional football follower without mentioning the team's name, they reflexively scoff. But Texas Tech hammers people. Over the past five years they've outscored opponents by an average score of 39.4 to 24.8 while outgaining them by over nine thousand yards, despite the fact that Tech is forced to recruit second-tier high school players who are overlooked by Texas and Oklahoma. Everywhere Leach has gone, he's had success -- as an assistant at the University of Kentucky, he found ways to turn an ungifted quarterback (Tim Couch) into a Heisman candidate who passed for 8,400 yards and was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns. In a single season assisting at Oklahoma, he designed the offense that would ultimately win a national championship. So how did he do it? What is the secret to his brilliance?
"There's two ways to make it more complex for the defense," Leach told journalist Michael Lewis, writing for The New York Times Magazine. "One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that's no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays run out of lots of different formations. That way, you don't have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand."
It's easy to overlook the significance of this kind of quote, mostly because it seems obvious and casual and reductionist. But it's none of those things. It's an almost perfect description of how thinking slightly differently can have an exponential consequence, particularly when applied to an activity that's assumed to be inflexible. There is this inherent myth about football that suggests offensive success comes in one of two ways: You can run a handful of plays with extreme precision, or you can run a multitude of different plays in the hope of keeping defenses confused. The Green Bay Packers of the Lombardi era embraced the former philosophy (they rarely used more than fifteen different plays in the course of any game, but the fifteen they ran were disciplined and flawless), as did the straightforward running attack of USC during the 1970s and early '80s4. Two modern coaches (Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer) have both found success at the talent-rich University of Florida, seemingly by never running the same play twice. But the inverted thinking of Mike Leach allows Texas Tech to do both: If Texas Tech focuses on only fifteen different plays -- but runs them all out of twenty different formations -- they're instantly drawing from a pool of three hundred options, all of which could still be executed with the repetitive exactitude of the Packers' power sweep. It wasn't that Leach out-thought everybody else; it was merely that he thought differently. Instead of working within the assumed parameters of football, he decided to expand what those parameters were. For a while, that made him seem like a crazy person. But this is how football always evolves: Progressive ideas are introduced by weirdos and mocked by the world, and then everybody else adopts and refines those ideas ten years later. To wit:
• Bill Walsh, the architect of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty, who built the West Coast offense on an interesting combination of mathematics and psychology: He realized that any time a team rushed for four yards on the ground, the play was viewed as a success. However, any time a team completed a pass that gained four yards, the defense assumed they had made a successful stop. Walsh understood that the two situations were identical. By viewing the passing game as a variant of the running game, he changed everything about how football is played.
• Sam Wyche, the principal innovator of the no-huddle offense: Wyche was known for having curious ideas about everything, but his theory of a chaotic attack (that ignored the pre-snap huddle in order to generate matchup problems and tire defenses) is now common. In 1989, Wyche's Cincinnati Bengals played the Buffalo Bills in a play-off game. Members of the Bills defense constantly feigned injury in order to stop the Bengals from rushing to the line of scrimmage. Prior to the game, Bills coach Marv Levy had openly questioned the moral credibility of Wyche's approach. The following season, Levy stole the Bengals' no-huddle offense and went on to play in four straight Super Bowls.
• Darrel "Mouse" Davis, the passing guru who popularized the Run and Shoot offense: Nobody really runs the Run and Shoot anymore (it didn't really work whenever a team was inside the twenty), but almost every pass-first coach has stolen some of its principles. One of these principles was allowing wide receivers to make adjustments to their pass routes while they were running them, so-called "choice routes"5 that are especially popular with present-day slot receivers like Wes Welker and Anthony Gonzalez. The one-RB, four-WR offensive set Davis invented at Portland State in the late 1970s is standard today, even though it seemed otherworldly and unstoppable at the time: In 1980, Portland State beat Delaware State 105-0 and Cal Poly Pomona 93-7. Mouse may have been a genius, but he was something of a [jerk].
• Mike Martz, a lunatic whom no one seems to respect6 but who consistently creates innovation by ignoring conventional thinking. Sometimes, this hurts him (while coaching the St. Louis Rams, Martz seemed briefly obsessed with the possibility of onside kicking when the Rams were ahead). But sometimes his strange mind leads him to interesting places: Fundamentally, it was always believed that receivers should run in straight lines and make their downfield cuts at hard angles. Martz considered the possibility of WRs running curved pass patterns, a subtle change that helped make the Rams impossible to contain during the late nineties.
• Dick LeBeau: In 1984, as a coordinator in Cincinnati, he borrowed basketball philosophies to develop the "zone blitz" -- the concept of attacking the opposing QB with linebackers and defensive backs while dropping hulking defensive linemen into pass coverage. In '84, the idea of using a 270-pound defensive end in the secondary seemed about as practical as using a sledgehammer to fix a clock radio. But by the turn of the century, the zone blitz was everywhere.
• Gus Malzahn, the unheralded offensive coordinator at the University of Tulsa7 who took Wyche's hurry-up offense to its illogical extreme: The goal of Malzahn's approach is to play at full speed at all times, lengthening the game and wearing out opponents mentally and physically. As a high school coach at tiny Shiloh Christian in Arkansas, he once won a play-off game by a score of 70 to 64. In that contest, his quarterback passed for 672 yards. Tulsa averaged 47.2 points per game in 2008.
• Steve Humphries, a bored high school coach in Piedmont, California, who came up with the A-11 offense: The A-11 exploited a loophole in the rulebook allowing every player on the field to become an eligible pass receiver during kicking situations. The A-11 also employs two quarterbacks simultaneously, making every snap a gadget play. Because of its reliance on a bad rule, the A-11 is being outlawed by the National Federation of High Schools -- but elements of the scheme will still be adopted by every coordinator who takes the time to study it. Even more radical are mathematical minds like Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, a high school coach who went 13-1 and won the Arkansas 5A title in 2007 by never punting the football all season, even when his team was pinned inside its own ten-yard line. All of Kelley's in-game decisions are considered from a risk-reward standpoint, exclusively viewed through statistical probability; he has concluded that the upside of working with an extra play on every set of downs is greater than the risk of surrendering thirty-five yards of field possession on every change of possession. His numeric strategy is also applied to kickoffs -- Pulaski onside kicks about 75 percent of the time. Despite their success, just about everyone who watches Pulaski Academy play still thinks they're joking. "You can just tell people are in the stands thinking, 'You're an idiot,'" Kelley said after winning the championship.
I could list these types of guys ad nauseam. I could include everyone from Sid Gillman8 to Emory Bellard9 to Don Coryell10. But the size of the list doesn't matter; what matters is how these men were all criticized in the same way. Whenever an innovation fails to result in a title, its unorthodoxy takes the hit; every time a football coach tries something unorthodox, he is blasted for not playing "the right way." But all that "not playing the right way" means is that a coach is ignoring the eternal lie of football: the myth that everything done in the past is better than anything that could be invented in the present. As a result, the public arm of football -- the conservative arm -- bashes innovation immediately, even while adopting the principles it attacks11. The innovators are ridiculed. And that kind of reaction is reassuring to fans, because it makes us feel like football is still the same game we always want to remember. It has a continuity of purpose. It symbolizes the same ideals and appeals to the same kind of person. It feels conservative, but it acts liberal. Everything changes, but not really.
1a. As I continue to watch Michigan's quarterback run the read option against the Gophers, I now find myself wondering if this play is authentically simple or quietly complex. The read option is a combination of three rudimentary elements of football: spreading the field, running a back off tackle, and the quarterback keeper. It would be an easy play to teach and a safe play to run, even for junior high kids. But it's still new. It didn't really exist in the 1970s and '80s, and when I first saw it employed in the late '90s, it seemed like an idiotic innovation. It seemed like a way to get your quarterback killed without taking advantage of your tailback. I had always believed teams could not succeed by running the ball out of the shotgun formation. I thought it would never happen. But I was wrong. And I suspect the reason I was wrong was not because I didn't understand what was happening on this specific play; I suspect it was because I felt like I already understood football. I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn't actually watching but was still trying to see.
Over time, I realized this had happened with almost every aspect of my life.
3b. When we think of football, we think of Woody Hayes, or at least we think of men like Woody Hayes, even if we don't know who Woody Hayes is. Hayes coached Ohio State for twenty-eight years, won five national championships, never asked for a pay raise, and ended his career in disgrace by punching an opposing player in the Gator Bowl. "Show me a gracious loser," he would say, "and I will show you a busboy." People who write books about Woody Hayes give them titles like War as They Knew It and note his hatred for popular culture (Hayes was memorably outraged by a reference to lesbianism in Paul Newman's hockey film Slap Shot). His quarterbacks never passed12, his linebackers always went to class, and every kid who loved him lived in a state of perpetual fear. It felt normal. That's what football is. These are the types of images we want to associate with the essence of the game. Bill Parcells used to refer to wideout Terry Glenn as "she" during press conferences. That's what football is. Barry Sanders running to daylight. Earl Campbell running to darkness. Settling for a field goal late in the first half. Playing for field position when the weather is inclement. Blocking sleds. Salt tablets. Richard Nixon's favorite sport. That's what football is, always -- and if we stopped believing that, it would seem to matter less.
But that isn't what football is.
It isn't. It changes more often than any sport we have. Football was Nixon's favorite sport, but it was Hunter S. Thompson's favorite, too. Football coaches will try anything. They're gonzo. In the 1970s, teams only used a 3-4 defense13 if their defensive personnel was flawed. During the early eighties, that assumption changed; the new objective was to cover the field with as many linebackers as possible. Suddenly, nobody was playing a 4-3 except Dallas. But then the '85 Bears hammered people with their 4614 defense, so every coordinator decided he had to create his own bastardized version of the 46. As a result, the only teams that still played 3-4 were the ones with defensive flaws, exactly how things had been originally. Every innovation is seen as a positive innovation, even if it has a negative result. Throughout the 1980s, the hot trend in the NFL was barefoot place kickers. A few guys even punted barefoot. It retrospect, this was probably the strangest fad in football history (it was the sports equivalent of peg-rolling your Guess jeans, which was going on at about the same time). There is absolutely no reason that kicking a football without a shoe could be better than the alternative, particularly when one is outdoors in the dead of winter. But this is what people did. Someone tried it, so it must be worth trying. When my friends and I played four-on-four football at recess, we would remove our moon boots and kick the Nerf pigskin with raw toes, even when the ground was blanketed by nineteen inches of snow. We thought we were being tough. We were actually being liberal.
2b. "In those days football seemed the almost perfect sport and it seemed unlikely we could ever get enough of it," David Halberstam wrote in 1974, alluding to the NFL games he had watched with Gay Talese during the LBJ administration. "What we really rooted for was the game itself." Interestingly, the title of the magazine essay this comes from is "Sunday, Boring Sunday: A Farewell to Pro Football." Halberstam was bemoaning (what he considered to be) the sad decline of pro football during the seventies, a supposition that now seems totally wrong in every possible way15. A more prescient statement comes from something Halberstam wrote in 2006, again reminiscing about watching Johnny Unitas and Frank Gifford on black-and-white TV sets over twenty-five-cent beers: "Nobody needed to sell the NFL to us. We could see how good it was."
I am thirty-seven years old. I now like football more than I ever have, or at least as much as I ever have since those wonderful days in fourth grade when I'd take off my moon boot to kick barefoot in the snow. I never thought this would happen. Never. I always assumed that my interest in football would wane over time, just as it has for everything else I was obsessed with as a kid. For a few scant years, this did seem to happen -- my interest in pro sports decreased during the height of my college experience, and I missed one Super Bowl completely16. But since entering the workforce in the summer of '94, my obsession with football has risen every single autumn. I love watching it and I love thinking about it. And I want to understand why that happened. I assume it is one of three explanations or -- more likely -- a combination of all three: Either (a) the game itself keeps improving, (b) the media impacts me more than I'm willing to admit, or (c) this is just what happens to men as they grow older. I suppose I don't care. I'm just glad to have something in my life that is so easy enjoy this much. All I have to do is sit on my couch and watch. It is the easiest kind of pleasure.
My wife is awesome, but she hates football (as wives are wont to do). Every game seems the same to her. I will be watching a contest between Kent State and Eastern Michigan on a random Thursday night, and she will say, "Go ahead and watch that game. I will just sit here and read this magazine featuring a plus-sized black female TV personality from Chicago." Two days later, Georgia will be playing LSU for the SEC championship. Now she will want to rent Scenes from a Marriage. "You want to watch football again?" she will ask. "Didn't you already watch football on Thursday?" Every game seems the same to her. And I can't explain the difference, even though the differences feel so obvious. And I don't want to explain the difference, because I always want to watch Kent State and Eastern Michigan, too. They are as different to me as they are similar to her.
I don't know what I see when I watch football. It must be something insane, because I should not enjoy it as much as I do. I must be seeing something so personal and so universal that understanding this question would tell me everything I need to know about who I am, and maybe I don't want that to happen. But perhaps it's simply this: Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.
1. The spread offense was so culturally pervasive in 2008 that it briefly became a plot point in season three of Friday Night Lights, undoubtedly the first time a prime-time TV show felt the need to respond to what was happening in major college football.
2. I feel like the addition of radios inside the helmets of NFL quarterbacks has been an overlooked innovation in how football embraces change. The Cleveland Browns invented QB radios in 1956, but they were banned until 1994. This legislation, along with the use of instant replay for officials, shows how football is unusually willing to let technology dictate performance. More conservative sports (like baseball or soccer) would fight such modernization tooth and nail.
3. I feel an obligation to note that it wasn't really Favre's fault that announcers were in love with him. But it kind of was, because Favre perpetuated it, too. He openly played to their girlish worship.
4. As a senior in 1981, USC's Marcus Allen rushed for 2,432 yards in twelve games. This is both astounding and understandable when you watch tape of the Trojans from that season -- it often seems like half of the offensive plays were simple toss sweeps over the right tackle (the so-called "Student Body Right").
5. This is especially significant within the context of football's traditional relationship with hierarchical control: Since the 1970s, much of football's fascist reputation had to do with the way offensive plays are dictated by the coaching staff, often from a press box a hundred feet above the field of play. The actual athletes sometimes seem like pawns. But choice routes gave autonomy to receivers.
6. ESPN commentator Tom Jackson once called Martz "The worst kind of idiot -- an idiot who thinks he's a genius."
8. Gillman introduced the idea of the vertical passing game in the 1950s and '60s.
9. Bellard popularized the wishbone option at the University of Texas in 1967, having taken the idea from Charles "Spud" Carson, a junior high coach in Fort Worth, Texas.
10. Coryell is the father of the modern pro passing game, particularly with the San Diego Chargers in the early 1980s. He also changed the way people looked at collegiate talent: He won 104 games with the San Diego State Aztecs by almost exclusively recruiting from junior colleges.
11. Easy example: In the annual New York Times Magazine "The Year in Ideas" issue for 2008, there was a brief examination of the Wildcat formation and the spread offense. The piece concludes with a dismissive quote from Aaron Schatz, a contributor to Pro Football Prospectus. "Wildcat got crazy," said Schatz. "It's a silly fad, like leg warmers or parachute pants." Time may prove Schatz correct, but his condescension ignores some irrefutable results. The year before Miami started using the Wildcat, they were 1-15; the next season, the Dolphins went 11-5 and won the AFC East. In 2007, Ole Miss went 3-9, so they fired their head coach and hired Wildcat innovator Houston Nutt; with almost identical talent, Ole Miss won nine games in 2008 and were the only school to defeat the University of Florida all season. Ole Miss ultimately beat Leach's Texas Tech in the 2009 Cotton Bowl.
12. Although some of them did become addicted to gambling and cocaine.
13. This refers to a defensive alignment that has three linemen and four linebackers. And if you didn't know that already, I am pretty f------ impressed you're still hanging with this. It should also be noted that certain NFL teams have succeeded wildly with the 3-4 defense even when it was unpopular, particularly in the AFC; Miami won championships with the 3-4 during the mid-1970s and Pittsburgh has used a 3-4 attack for more than twenty years.
14. Unlike the 4-3 or the 3-4, the name of the 46 defense does not indicate the number of linemen and linebackers who are on the field. The reason Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan called this formation the 46 was because its effectiveness hinged on the play of Chicago strong safety Doug Plank, whose jersey number was 46.
15. Even Halberstam would ultimately concede that his '74 piece did not hold up over time: In 2001, he wrote a much more affectionate essay called "How I Fell in Love with the NFL."
16. It was the year the Redskins played the Bills, and I was at a party. How I was at a party on a Sunday night in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that somehow wasn't a Super Bowl party is pretty hard for me to fathom, but this was around the same time I started drinking "proactively."
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