Critical Keys to the Game

So you snickered your way through Football Appreciation 101, did you?  Let’s see how sophisticated your football viewing habits really are.  No, this isn’t about trivia.  This is about how you watch the game and what your brain is doing while you are watching it.

I have recently been interviewing women on what they like most about football.

And no, that’s not it – although it certainly doesn’t hurt.

One woman made a comment that I consider to be a mark of the emerging aficionado: “I used to just watch the quarterback. Then I could watch the running backs. Now I can even see the defense.”

This is the natural evolution of spectatorship as our knowledge grows. So, what do you watch when you’ve been watching for 25 years?

1. The lines.


Yep. Those enormous guys up front who move about 3 yards on each play. Nauseating as that old saw about games being won “in the trenches” is – it’s true. Nowhere was it more evident than in Super Bowl XLII (see Barbara’s Playoff Picks for a complete game breakdown). Tom Terrific couldn’t get a pass off in the second half without threading it through a wall of Giants coming at him full steam ahead. I don’t care how cool the guy is – that’s gotta get to you! And it did.

If the pocket collapses, you can’t throw; if the Dline is in your backfield you can’t run. Defensively, if you can get in the opposing QB’s face your secondary will get turnovers; if you’re pushing the Guards back into the rusher he loses yards. Period. Tear your eyes away from the QB for a quarter and you’ll know who is winning the game without even looking at the scoreboard.

OK, now that you’re focused on the linemen I’ll spin your noggin’ around entirely by bringing up the second key to football.

2. Quarterback decision-making

Peyton Manning isn’t a better QB than Carson Palmer because he has a better arm or better receivers. He makes better decisions.

We all laugh at #18’s “pre-snap theatre” as Mike Tirico called it. But how often do you see those audibles work? A lot. Generally, QB’s with the best winning percentage are the smartest. It’s much more about when to throw the rock and where to throw the rock than it is about how far you can throw it. Much as we are all still in love with the deep ball and it is still the biggest thrill of the game, 60 yards in the air doesn’t always a win make. Just ask Jeff George.

3. Special teams.

Kickers are a league-wide running joke and even I recently compared a return specialist to a speeding Hobbit. But one afternoon quite a few years ago Bill Parcells changed my entire attitude towards these unheralded competitors (OK – Devin Hester is pretty heralded – but how many “gunners” can YOU name?). Parcells said, “Every yard my special teams makes is one less yard my offense has to get.” So simple it’s juvenile, right? But think about the implications. Then think about the fact that Adam Vinatieri won all 3 Super Bowls for the New England Patriots. And the FG that won it all in number XXXVIII was set up when Carolina Panther John Kasay’s kickoff went out of bounds, allowing the Patriots to start their game-winning drive on the 40 yard line. Makes you think, doesn’t it? So never go for that sandwich during a punt! But then, Deion Sanders showed you that 18 years ago didn’t he?

4. Coaching adjustments.

Yeah, I know – the coaches don’t play. They can’t block a kick or catch a pass. But they can be masters of both the big picture and the details. And the great ones are flexible. They are able to abandon a game plan without even the ghost of regret if it’s not working or they see a new weakness to be exploited. Amazingly, Belichick’s last two season-ending games have been the prime recent examples of getting flat-out out-coached. What? The Hoodie (as Jim Rome would say)? Mr. Best Coach in Football? Yes indeed.

In February’s Super Bowl, dour Mr. B. refused to give up on his aerial attack even when Brady was clearly not getting time to make those great decisions for which he’s famous. Granted, if all I needed was one long Randy Moss bomb to win another ring I might be a little stubborn on that front too. And it isn’t as if the New York linebackers were sleeping on rush D. But a changeup was worth a try.

Two years ago, in the AFC Championship game it was Tony Dungy who made all the great half-time coaching changes. Belichick continued to play his D according to the plan that had gotten the Pats an 18-point lead. Dungy switched to a two-pronged running juggernaut and turned his ProBowl WR’s into blockers while Belichick kept his guys pursuing the pass. Result? Indy went to the Super Bowl.

Now that you are armed with these not-so-secret insights, go out there and flaunt your football erudition. You’ll be the toast of the living room. Warning: when the person you’re talking to gets that glazed look in their eyes – they are either on overload or they’re a baseball fan.

Meanwhile …

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