Cognition & Reality

Sunday, 16 January 2011

New Football

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 3:52 pm

I’m not sure how an entry about pro football figures into either “cognition” or “reality,” but I’m making one of my periodic entries on the subject.

I’ve been watching the National Football League for over 50 years. In that time, the way the game is played has changed a lot, just as much as has everything else about the NFL, the money, the fans, the amount of attention it receives. Now, as we move toward the always over-hyped Super Bowl, on what is usually the best weekend of the season for fans, the “divisional” round of the playoffs, I have some thoughts about the game that I’ve been saving up.

The conservative coaching philosophy that dominated the game thirty years ago has given way to a new style that appears to involve more gambling. What I think has actually happened is that coaches now and always “play the percentages,” but they understand better what those “percentages” are. In the 1970s, under the influence of the much-admired George Allen (father of former Virginia senator George “Macaca” Allen), the emphasis was on minimizing mistakes and winning the game through strong defense. Allen’s “Over-the Hill Gang” Washington Redskins fully exemplified his philosophy of using veteran players and teaching mistake-free football. Like all of Allen’s teams, the ‘Skins played well, but could never quite win it all.

Somewhere along the way, NFL coaches began to realize that, although Allen was on to something in his emphasis on minimizing mistakes, he had missed the overall meaning of mistakes in the flow of the game: If minimizing my own mistakes will often lead to victory, then maximizing my opponent’s mistakes is of at least equal importance. For example, it had long been considered (to use baseball parlance) “bush league” to go after the ball on pass defense or when tackling a runner, but now coaches began to realize that, under some circumstances, going after the ball makes a lot of sense. Turnovers, fumbles and interceptions, it was seen, play a huge role in the outcome of games, because they not only give you the ball, but also deny it to the opponent. Focusing on the cost of losing the football, Allen had turned this recognition into a very conservative form of play. The new coaching philosophy, also cognizant of a turnover’s value, puts more emphasis on taking the ball away.

Now, what you see often see on defense defies the customs of a few decades back, or appears to do so, until you look at the subtleties. Coaches still want to see defensive players tackle the ball carrier, but the second and third men in on a tackle, depending on the first man in to make the tackle, go after the ball. Consequently, you see a lot more plays in which a defensive player attempts to punch the ball out of a runners grasp, or attempts to wrench the ball away. This change requires the defensive player to discriminate between times when stopping the runner (or receiver) is his primary responsibility and times when it is the responsibility of another player, the guy who first grabs hold of the runner. Yes, by focusing more on getting the ball, you reduce the probability somewhat of making the tackle, but you have to figure in the value of recovering a fumble.

Similarly, the second and third pass defenders to reach the point of play tend to go for the ball, although there is also more emphasis on the first defender’s going for an interception. For example, the great Deion Sanders notoriously could not tackle worth a damn, but quarterbacks did not throw in his direction because he was better at finding the ball than the average receiver. Again, by focusing a little more on the ball and less on the receiver, you’re taking a chance, but it’s a chance worth taking, given the value of an interception. In this new style of football, there are a lot more turnovers, or at least a lot more forced turnovers than in the old daze, when a fumble or even an interception was seen primarily as a lucky break, rather than as the result of deliberate effort on the part of the defense.

The same sort of process has taken hold recently in regard to situations when it is fourth down and short yardage. George Allen, and every other coach of his era, would grimace at the number of times contemporary coaches go for a first down on fourth-and-one or fourth-and-two. For years, I would marvel in disgust as coaches, failing to pick up a first on short yardage inside the opponent’s 40-yard-line, but outside “field goal range” (roughly the 30-yard-line), would punt the ball. As often as not, the punted ball would end up in the end zone for a touchback, bringing the ball back out to the 20, meaning that the punt would net less than twenty yards. Sometimes, they’d try a field goal from, say, the 35, although a miss would mean that the opponent would get the ball where it was spotted for the kick, seven yards behind the line; in the case of a missed kick from the 35, this would give the ball to the other team at their own 42, excellent starting field position. Coaches acted this way because they focused more or less solely on the negative, the cost of giving up the ball outside the opponent’s 30-yard-line, and on the cost of giving up an opportunity to score on a long field goal.

Nowadays, coaches  have seen the light. The often go for it when it’s fourth and short at, say, the opponent’s 35-yard-line. The worse case scenario is that, following a failed fourth down try, the other team receives the ball at their own 35, not a good outcome, but something that’s not hard to live with, given the big payoff if you made a first down fairly deep in the opponent’s territory. They have also recognized the huge cost associated with trying a long field goal, except late in the game when it’s the only chance of winning. In other words, coaches have begun to focus more on both sides of the equation, balancing how much it hurts to fail against how much it helps to succeed. They go for it more often now because they’ve realized that, gamble though it may seem, it’s actually the “safe” play.


1 Comment »

  1. It’s late at night, and my brain’s not up for a lot of football speak, but I think you have a very good point about the different ways to look at the plays and all of that.


    Comment by annie wallack — Wednesday, 19 January 2011 @ 1:17 am | Reply

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