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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Utter Genius

NOTE: I think this post is more interesting if you're a football fan - but more important if you're not. Perhaps after reading it, you'll understand the obsessed among us a little better. Then again, maybe you'll just be confused. Either way, you'll hopefully realize that there's a lot more than meets the eye. :)
I am a football fan. More specifically, an NFL football fan. Even more specifically, a Cleveland Browns fan. (Jack, sha!) One of the first things my sister-in-law SIL said to my sister after we got married was
"Oh! So now you're a Sunday widow! Join the club!"
My mother-in-law topped that with a pillow she bought us soon after we got married which says:
We interrupt this marriage...
...to bring you football season.
My brother and I were discussing the NFL playoffs on the way home from the WITS Alumni reunion last Saturday night, and Serach couldn't take it:
"Why are you so obsessed with football?!" "Serach, you don't understand football." "Then explain it!" "No way - that would take forever. There's so much that goes into it, people just don't realize." "It just looks like a bunch of people running into each other every time."
At this, my brother and I looked at each other, smiled, shook our heads, and sighed. We began discussing with each other the intricacies that are impossible to truly explain to someone who doesn't know the game - and just discussing some tiny aspects makes you appreciate how much there is involved on every single play of a football game. Serach piped up again,
"What sport is the most popular?" "In the US - football, without question." "Why?" (glance at each other again, just to make sure we're thinking the same thing) "It's the smartest sport of them all."
Baseball and basketball have their own positives, but football, more than the others, requires brains. If you don't have a quick mind, good perceptions, and decent vision, you won't last too long in the NFL. And it's not all conscious thought: Instincts and reactions are equally as important.

Imagine you're in your home. You are talking with your friend, while in the next room your husband/father/sister is watching the game. All of a sudden, you hear,
"GO!! GOO!! (jump!) YESSS!!!!" "GIMME FIVE!" "ALLRIGHT!!!" (slaps five) "What a run!" "Wow - see that? That was a GREAT block. Sick." (calm) "Wow. That was really nice. See that?" "Yeah - that was cool."
You shake your head, wondering how they could be so excited over something so stupid. As you go back to discussing Calvin and Hobbes, (no, not this Calvin & Hobbes...) you fail to realize what you've just missed.

One of the many things teams do to prepare for a game are have practices where their own players pretend to be players from the team they are about to face, acting in the same way that those players do on the countless hours of film they've seen.
"All right, guys - when you see 88 glance into this area like this, it usually means that his pass route is a square-in at about 9 yards. Cut underneath him to knock down a potential pass - but not too far underneath, because if he and 18 see this he usually does a quick turn back to the outside flat and you're going to look like an idiot when he's sitting there wide open."
By practicing little things all week, they are better prepared to do so instinctively during the game. Each team spends the entire game trying to outmaneuver the other - and do so without outmaneuvering themselves. They spend at least one week trying to figure out just how to do so, in every aspect of the game - usually, the first 10 plays of the game are scripted in advance by coaches, and often even more. Teams have hundreds of plays, each codified to the situations that they are meant for in each game, and usually pick about 75 or so that they'll use in a given game - each with a number of different versions for different groups of players and formations.
"Okay," you say. "So football teams do a lot of planning and practice: And then they all run into each other, right?"
Each player on the field spends the seconds leading up to the snap making constant "reads"; trying to figure out who is about to do what and how, and how that will affect what's about to happen, and what he needs to do to make sure that works for his own team's plans. For example, here's the thought process of a left tackle named Walt on a run to the left: (Or in other words, the fat guy on the left end of the group of 5 fat guys on the team with the ball, when the quarterback is going to hand the ball to the guy behind him who will run in the same direction as aforementioned fat guy.)
'Okay, they have 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers. Their safeties are playing up, and their corners tight. We're about to run the ball right at 57 over there, but 54 is cheating over that way too. I'm going to be blocking 94, and Tim's going to slide forward to block 57, but 54 might have a clear shot at our running back. But if we slide a bit, and I take 57, and Tim takes 94, Bob can get out ahead and take 54 out of the way. It will force our guy to run a little further outside, and that might allow the safety to cut him off, but that's fine - our receiver will cut him off. Their corner would have a clear shot, but he has to respect the pass threat of our receiver as he cuts toward the safety, so he'll be turned the wrong way to get our back. All right - that works: I'll tell the other guys.' "26!! 26!!" Bob looks over, sees what Walt sees, agrees, yells something else. The quarterback turns to the receivers and running back, announces the change in plans, and leans in for the snap.
The other team realizes they're making a change, and tries to quickly assess what it is and adjust accordingly. Without bothering to go into the thought processes of their own players, let's go back to Dave:
'All right, so I'm going to try and get out and block 57. I gotta block him to the right, which means I have to get all the way to the left before he does. Should I try and go sideways to have a better angle, but risk being turned too far to my own left? Or should I go ahead further, but risk not making it there fast enough? I think I can get a good jump, so I'll go out ahead. If 94 realizes what's happening because of this, I'll knock him with my arm to slow him down until Tim gets over to help out.'
Get the idea? Now, remember that there are 22 different people on the field every single play, plus tens of players and coaches on the sidelines looking at everything from other angles and yelling out things that the players on the field may be missing - and watching the other team, listening to the codes they use, and... it goes on and on.

Then, there's the difficult trouble that exists in, even after figuring out what the other team might or might not be doing, actually stopping the other team. This requires incredible instinct and quick rethinking of whatever you may have thought before the play as the play progresses. When you realize that the average NFL play takes less than 10 seconds, that's some pretty fast thinking.

The next time you see or hear your husband, father, sister, or household football fan jump up and down at a perfectly executed touchdown run by their favorite team, don't scoff at their enjoyment of watching one man run past a bunch of other ones who ran into each other. Instead, understand that they are merely appreciating the complexity involved in running such a perfect play that could result in a touchdown - all the little details necessary to get that running back around end beyond the reach of the nearest defenders. Months, if not years, have been spent developing that play and the instincts necessary to run it. The football fan in your family has spent years learning to appreciate those intricate details and the genius behind it.

Then again, maybe they're just happy their team scored a touchdown.

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