Monday, January 30, 2012

C Student in X's and O's

There's a lot of plays on that call sheet.

I have a confession to make. I don't really understand football.

I know a lot about football. I know that 4 yards a carry is a good average, that a facemask penalty is 15 yards, and that a slot receiver lines up off tackle. I could break down, in enormous detail, the differences between Dan Marino's 1984 season, Peyton Manning's 2004 season, and Tom Brady's 2007 season*. When a flag is thrown, I usually know what the penalty is. And recently, while driving home with the Rock Star, we tried to name every Super Bowl winner, and damn near got 'em all right (though I had a few out of order; it's tough to put those 70's Cowboys, Dolphins, and Raiders in the right order).

But when I'm actually watching a game, I'm pretty sure that 90% of what is happening on the field is going over my head. In fact, I'm pretty sure that 60% of it is going over the head of a Pop Warner coach.

Football has always been an enormously complicated game - 22 players on the field have rather specific assignments on each play. Sometimes those assignments are simple, sometimes they have options and variations mid-play. How can you track all of them?

But today's NFL has taken to it another level. A few years back, ESPN Magazine broke down everything that goes on in the head of Peyton Manning prior to a snap. The defense is set up in a pass D - or is it a run D disguised as a pass D? The middle linebacker sneaks up one step...Manning keeps his eye on him. Strong safety takes two steps left. Manning barks out a few signals and changes the play...or did he? Hike. Linebackers shift, safety shifts, Manning throws a ball to an unoccupied spot in the end zone - where Reggie Wayne arrives a moment later to catch it.

Who could break that down as its happening? The answer is: nobody. Even Peyton Manning, sitting in a broadcast booth five years from now, won't be able to thoroughly break it down as he watches, say, Andrew Luck against the Steelers. To do so would require not only Manning's superhuman football IQ, but an inner knowledge of the workings of Luck's offense, detailed study of the Steelers pass coverage schemes, and certitude of the original called play, to know if Luck audibled or fake-audibled.

If Future Peyton doesn't know what just happened, what chance does an average fan have?

I bring all this up because, as you may have heard, the Giants and Patriots have a rematch of Super Bowl 42 coming up. The exhausting, mind-numbing coverage have focused almost entirely on non-football stuff. The Rematch. Eli playing in his brother's building. The personalities of the coaches. The history of Tom Brady's hair.

We do all this because, frankly, most of us can't have an intelligent conversation about zone blitzes, run blocking schemes and defensive audibles. That's why, on NFL Mondays all around the country, sports radio features non-stop discussions of things like clock management and body language. Few callers are smart enough to talk about a defense's failure to adjust to the right guard's interior blocking, so instead we call up and blame the loss on the head coach's sideline demeanor, or the fact that he went on it at 4th and 1 from his own 48.

We are, however, breeding a smarter generation of football fans. Tomorrow's football fans will have thousands and thousands of hours of Madden behind them - selecting defenses, calling plays, even strategizing seasons. This is much better preparation for Advanced Fanship than what I bring to the table.

I'm trying my best, I really am, to ignore all the silly stuff that has no impact on what happens between the lines. I like the way the Giants' offense matches up against the Patriots' defense; I worry about our safeties covering their tight ends; and I think, if Vince Wilfork brings his A game, look out.

But then I can't help noticing...the Patriots are 13-2 since Brady cut his hair...

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