Saturday, September 29, 2007

Football Peeves

I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one's existence. I don't want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

A couple of football-related gripes ...

Lost in the midst of all the foofraw about spawn-of-the-devil Bill Belichick's "cheating" (not to mention the lack of foofraw about the NFL subsequently destroying all the evidence) was a more important issue. Why do coaches feel the need to control every aspect of the game?

I mean, this game was originally played with quarterbacks calling their own plays and someone on defense, normally the middle linebacker, calling the defenses. It has degenerated to the point where the NFL placed microphones in the helmets of quarterbacks so the coach could talk to them directly.

Momentary digression: This is what makes the whole "stealing defensive" signals thing so ridiculous. The microphone is turned off with 15 seconds left on the play clock. By the time a team decoded the defensive signals and called a new play to take advantage of it, there probably wouldn't be enough time to get the information to the hapless quarterback awaiting his words of truth and wisdom form the god-on-the-sidelines. Now back to your regularly-scheduled griping.

I blame all this sideline control on Paul Brown. Brown was a great head coach who formed the Cleveland Browns (immodestly named after himself) and led them out of the old All American Conference into the NFL where they won championships and contended for years (before Art Modell decided to dismantle them as an excuse to move to Baltimore; but that's another rant). Brown, despite having one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in history, Otto Graham, sent in every offensive play, shuttling players in and out of the game to deliver his calls.

Now, coaches had sent in plays ever since football started, but they tended to do so only in critical situations or when the sidelines or coaches up in their box saw something that the quarterback might be missing. It was Brown who took sideline play-calling to the extreme. Because he was successful, other teams decided it must be the coach calling the plays that made them that way. The fact that Brown had an excellent eye for talent and had built a team with some very good players seemed lost to those other decision-makers.

Along the way, as coaches made the offenses look more complicated (they weren't but they looked like it) it took too long to give the information to a lineman and send him to relay all this to a quarterback correctly, so signals started. Defenses still relied on their players to call strategy, although situational substitution allowed coaches to pretty much control that aspect as well.

Now, of course, a player can't spit on the field without checking with the head coach first.

The formations aren't really all the complicated. Watch a game and count just how many really different sets the offense takes. If you see more than five or six, you're probably watching Division III, where teams still have some imagination. As for those 700-page playbooks that some teams claim to have, apparently they have a lot of duplication in them because teams run the same plays game in and game out.

Let's face it. You don't need a few hundred offensive plays to win games. What you need to do is run the right play at the right time and execute properly. Vince Lombardi once said that he could tell the opposition what play he was going to run and still gain yardage on the play if his team ran the play to perfection.

The real problem here is that coaches seem to think that, since they are getting all this money these days, the fans must be coming out to see them, not the players. It's worse in college than in the pros, but it's evident in both.

You want to stop "cheating" like Belichick's? Make signs, microphones, semaphores, mirrors, smoke signals, you name it, illegal. Let those college-educated men on the field make most of the decisions. If the NCAA and the NFL want to speed up games, they might be stunned to find out how much faster a team can get to the line and run a play when the players don't spend 30 seconds staring at the bench waiting for Coach Einstein to decide what play from page 635 of the playbook he wants to call.

Then there's the nonsense about paying college players.

Paying college players is so stupid I barely know where to begin. You've heard the moan. The schools and the NCAA are making so much money off the labors of these man-children on the field, boo-hoo-hoo, they should be forced to return some of it to them.


First of all, schools aren't getting rich off these programs. Basically, football makes enough to support itself and some other sports programs, but I suspect, generally speaking, that a lot of Division IA schools are happy to be breaking even. As to the big payouts from bowl games, keep in mind that Texas, I think it was, actually lost money on a bowl game, thanks to the expenses of travel, goodies for players, and the like.

Secondly, colleges are educational institutions, not sports franchises. People, including university administrators, seem to have completely lost sight of this, a fact made obvious by news like this. It's bad enough that private schools would be expected to squander funds to pay salaries to football players (and by extension basketball players; minor sports would, no doubt, be exempted). But, the idea of state-funded schools paying for players using my tax money is positively abominable.

Don't even get me started on taxpayer-funded playing facilities. And don't give me that guff about athletic budgets being separate from academic funding. I've discussed that before.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, college players are paid. They get scholarships which are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Those that actually get a degree will be able to parlay that and connections with boosters into better earning potential than someone who never got into college in the first place.

We need to remember that sports used to be about athletes, not coaches and not money. That's old-school thinking, I know.

Well, sometimes old-school isn't so bad.

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