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Take Your Eye Off the Ball
How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look
By Pat Kirwan, David Seigerman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2010 Pat Kirwan and David Seigerman
All rights reserved.
Get in the Game
» Uncharted Territory for Fans Looking to Follow the Action
When a baseball fan goes to a ballgame, among the first things he often does is grab a hot dog, a beer, and a program before heading to his seat. Then he flips open the program and fills in the two starting lineups with his little golf pencil.
Already, there's a fundamental difference in the fan experience between baseball and football. The first pitch hasn't even been thrown and the baseball fan has had more of an interactive opportunity than the football fan will enjoy all day. There may be no crying in baseball, but there's no scorecard in football.
Before we get to examining strategy and positional nuances and how off-the-field and off-season considerations shape the way games will unfold on NFL Sundays, let's start with an easy first step, a simple way to connect football fans to their game the way baseball fans connect to theirs. If you want to follow football like a coach up in the box, learn to chart a game — football's version of keeping score.
Just like a baseball fan diligently tracks each at-bat and records every 6-4-3 double play, you can compile the same data that coaches use to make decisions in their play-calling and begin to see trends emerge as a game evolves. You can track specific information for each play — the down and distance, the personnel on the field, and the result. And that running play-by-play will show you how the situation dictates the action and gives you a glimpse into how coaches are approaching a particular game, which will enable you to achieve a level of football sophistication that has been off-limits to too many fans through the years.
WHO'S IN, FIRST
Football, like baseball, is all about forecasting. Coaches build their entire game plans around tendencies — what their opponent's track record suggests they might do in a certain situation.
A baseball fan can look at a particular game situation — runners on first and second with one out — and predict what an infielder will do if a groundball is hit to him. Football provides the same opportunity to anticipate the action, and the empowerment of the fan begins with understanding the personnel in the game. It's not enough to know the fundamental concept that there are 11 players on each side of the ball; the composition of that 11-man unit will provide clues for what to expect on any given play.
On offense, there are five linemen and a quarterback on every play — with the exception of the Wildcat or derivations of it, which we'll get to later — leaving five interchangeable offensive pieces. Personnel groups are identified by the number of running backs and tight ends on the field on a given play, in that order. If a team sends out two running backs and one tight end, it's called 21 personnel. If it sends out one back and two tight ends, it's 12 personnel. In both cases, there will be two receivers on the field. The first indicator a defense looks for is the personnel package the offense is sending out. It should be the first thing you're looking for, too.
That's because personnel tips off strategy. If the 22 personnel is on the field — two running backs and two tight ends — it means there's only one receiver out there. Immediately, you can make an educated guess about what play a coach is likely to call — in this case, probably a run. You can make your prediction even before they break the huddle once you've noted who's in the game.
If you're in the stands, as soon as one play finishes, look over to the sideline and try to spot the offensive coordinator. There's probably going to be a group of rotational players standing together beside him — the second tight end, the fullback, and the third and fourth receivers — waiting to see who will get substituted into the game on the next play. It'll be harder to follow on TV, since the time between plays is filled with replays and cutaway shots of fans or players or coaches, but as soon as an offense gets into formation, you can quickly determine what personnel is in the game.
During every game that I watch — and I watch every game every week — I have a pad and a pen in hand to track the personnel used on every play. I keep a very basic chart for both teams, and for every possible personnel grouping — from an empty backfield with five receivers (00 personnel) to a jumbo lineup with two backs and three tight ends (23 personnel) — I mark how many times each team ran or passed the ball.
As soon as the half ends, I already know the run-pass ratio for both teams according to the personnel that's on the field.Now I can anticipate the halftime adjustments that coaches are discussing in the locker room, because they're utilizing roughly the same data to find an edge for the second half.
TRACK THE FACTORS
Identifying the personnel grouping is a starting point, but there are other factors you need to pay attention to. Down and distance, two factors that always go hand in hand, is perhaps the most significant in terms of influencing what play a coach will call (and what personnel he'll send out on the field). When formulating his game plan, a coach usually will categorize his options by down and distance. For example, his game plan may include four or five plays that worked in practice that can be used on 2nd downs between 5 and 7 yards; four or five plays that have been predetermined for use on 2nd downs between 1 and 4 yards; and four or five more plays for 2-and-8 or longer. And each play may be run from a different personnel group and formation.
As you chart the plays a team runs, tendencies reveal themselves and the game plan materializes before your eyes. The chess match is on — and if you can see what's coming all the way up there in Section 315, you better believe the defense does, too. The offensive coordinator knows that the defense is making its decisions based on those demonstrated tendencies, and now he must figure out which play will work best against the defense he expects to face.
You can easily track the action and all the various factors in a simple play-by-play chart. It requires a bit more effort than the running totals you're tallying in the personnel chart you began earlier, but it takes you deeper into the action and gives you a clearer picture of what's really going on out on the field.
Look at this touchdown drive by the New England Patriots from midway through the first quarter of a Sunday night showdown with Indianapolis in 2009 (the game that culminated in Bill Belichick's infamous decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 instead of punting the ball away to Peyton Manning). As they took the field with 8:15 left in the first quarter, the Patriots were trailing 7–0. They'd gone three-and-out on their first possession, running plays out of three different personnel groupings before having to punt. Here's what happened on their next possession:
The Patriots scored a touchdown to tie the game, which obviously made it a successful possession. But there's a lot more information to be evaluated here than just the result.
For instance, New England showed three different personnel groups. The Pats ran the ball out of 10 personnel — one back, no tight end, and four receivers — a package that usually would suggest pass, and they also threw deep to Randy Moss out of the same personnel. A huge part of play-calling is maintaining a level of unpredictability, and the Patriots surrendered few clues to the Colts that could be used against them later in the game.
INFORMATION IS EMPOWERING
There are other factors to watch for as you track the action, field position being an essential one. A fan should recognize that there are really four quadrants of a football field — a team's goal line out to the 25-yard line, from the 25-yard line to midfield, midfield to its opponent's 25-yard line, and from the 25-yard line to its opponent's goal line — and coaches approach their play-calling differently depending on where they are on the field.
Of course, there are two mitigating elements: time remaining and the score. But all that really determines is how much a coach's menu of plays may shrink. For example, a coach is not going to call short-yardage plays out of 22 personnel if he's trailing by a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining.
Keeping score not only affords you an interactive opportunity; it teaches you how a coaching staff watches a game. Your play-by-play account will enable you to assess what's working in certain scenarios, the same kind of evaluation process that coaches go through all game long. Baseball fans develop a sense of what a pitcher will throw in a particular situation, and over time you'll have similar insight into your own team's tendencies.
An ambitious fan doesn't even have to wait until game day to start gathering this information. You can log on to NFL.com or team websites and find the play-by-play of every game played on every weekend. Just a little homework can show you what to expect from the opponent your team will be facing the following week.
Let's say you're a Houston Texans fan and your team was preparing to face Tennessee in Week 11 of the 2009 season. The Titans entered that game on a three-game winning streak, all after Vince Young had been reinstated as the starting quarterback. You might look back at the play-by-plays of the Titans' previous three games and notice that they ran the ball on two out of every three first downs. That kind of information would have told you what to watch for before the Texans took the field for their Monday night matchup. (Sure enough, the Titans ran 21 times in their 30 first-down plays, beating Houston with the same formula that had been working for them in the previous weeks.)
Watching a football game doesn't have to be a reactive experience. Every play doesn't have to be a mystery. A baseball fan can complain when he sees his pitcher throwing a first-pitch fastball to a first-pitch fastball hitter. You, too, have the right — and now the opportunity — to follow the nuances of your favorite sport just as closely.
The information is out there, right before your eyes. You just need to know where to look.CHAPTER 2
The 168-Hour Work Week
» Designing and Installing a Game Plan Is a Round-the-Clock Occupation
The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.
— Sun Tzu
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
— Mike Tyson
No Minnesota Vikings fan will ever forget the moment Brett Favre truly became one of their own.
With two seconds left in his third regular-season game as Minnesota's quarterback, Favre pumped, scrambled, dodged, and eventually launched a 32-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis (whose catch and footwork in the back of the end zone was every bit as impressive as Favre's perfect pass) to culminate a comeback win over the San Francisco 49ers.
The play immediately became part of Vikings lore, right up there with any Bobby Bryant interception, Cris Carter catch, or Adrian Peterson touchdown run. It was a one-in-a-million play in the eyes of anyone wearing purple and gold.
In reality, it was just one of 127 plays in that game between the Vikings and the 49ers, and one of 1,988 offensive snaps in Week 3 of the 2009 NFL season. Other plays were critical to that Minnesota win — specifically Favre's two third-down completions to Percy Harvin inside the final minute that kept the game-winning drive alive. But that improvised play and its legendary outcome will be the only one of the Vikings' 75 plays that anyone will ever remember.
Roughly 125 plays are run during the course of an NFL game, not counting special teams. And while fans are quick to question the wisdom of almost any play called in a given situation, few have any sense of the time and attention to detail that goes into preparing for every decision a coach will make over the course of a football game.
BIRTH OF A GAME PLAN
A coach's master playbook can contain about 1,000 plays — pretty much anything he would ever consider calling in a game. Every bomb, blitz, and blocking scheme is in there somewhere, along with every gadget play and goal-line scenario. And every call has its roots somewhere in that all-encompassing bible, which every coach is forever adding to and carrying with him from job to job.
The process of paring down that playbook into a single Sunday's game plan begins pretty much as soon as the previous season ends. Coaching staffs spend most of January (if they're out of the playoffs) and February going through some critical self-analysis, evaluating what they did well and what they did poorly during the season that just ended, and starting to decide what they're going to retain or change for the following year.
At the same time, they are preparing for the start of free agency and the upcoming draft. The personnel plan takes shape based on what the coach envisions being able to do in the upcoming season. He'll want to target players and prospects who will fit what he plans to run. You better believe Brad Childress' plan for 2009 changed once the possibility of acquiring Brett Favre first became real. Those early decisions are the building blocks of an eventual game plan.
As a team's personnel changes and its personality evolves through free agency and the draft, the overall game plan is steadily refined. Through organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps, coaches whittle away at their playbook, identifying the plays that best fit the team they'll have to work with. They try to maximize the strengths they see emerging, eliminate the obvious problem areas, and anticipate the matchups they'll be facing. Coaching staffs meet after practice every day, debating the pros and cons of every play they can imagine using in a game situation. The accumulation of those plays becomes the playbook for the next season, and by June 15, that actual playbook goes to the printer. A coach is now committed to his philosophy for the year.
FROM THE PLAYBOOK TO THE PRACTICE FIELD
Once the playbook is officially down on paper, it then has to be taught.
A coach will develop a summer camp installment schedule, during which he takes everything in that playbook and practices every bit of it with his team. Much of it will have been carried over from the previous season (a real benefit to teams with minimal roster turnover), some of it may have been introduced in the spring, and all of it will be reviewed during the preseason. But every play will be installed during the 55 or so practices — from walkthroughs to double sessions — that make up training camp. What a team does there determines for the most part what it's going to be that season; by this point, it's already too late to dramatically change what a team is going to do.
Heading into the last week of the preseason, it's time to develop the game plan for the first game of the regular season. A coach may look at his opponent and see, for example, that he's going to face a 4-3 defense. The first thing he does is scour the playbook for plays he thinks will work against a 4-3; suddenly, his playbook has been roughly cut in half.
He next considers his own roster. Let's imagine he has two rookies in the starting lineup and three veteran free agents who are still learning his system. As a result, he culls the playbook further, settling down to about 100 plays — only he can't practice 100 plays in the week leading up to a game. There's only enough time for four or five repetitions, including practice and walkthroughs, for each of about 40 plays. That's it. Those 40 plays he's been able to practice are the core of the game plan.
Excerpted from Take Your Eye Off the Ball by Pat Kirwan, David Seigerman. Copyright © 2010 Pat Kirwan and David Seigerman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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