December 28, 2011
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Theories of Football

I’ve written before about the dearth of insightful writing about American football, especially of writing for serious-minded casual fans. Football has never had a Roger Angell, it seems. This seems odd, because football is a very complex and cerebral sport, and pro football requires more explanation than baseball because:

It seems to me that most pro football teams are espouse a theory – a long-range plan of what they are trying to do. Serious followers know this in detail, and attribute the ideas to personality. Casual fans miss it entirely. I feel that I’m gradually getting the idea.

I can’t understand why this isn’t written down everywhere and widely discussed before each game.

Here are some current theories, as I understand them. Corrections and additions welcome. Email me..

Patriots theory: Rule changes introduced after the Pats’ 2005 Super Bowl have made pass defense impractical. We won’t invest another penny in pass defense; instead, we’ll put everything into the offensive side of the game. Lately, they haven't even been employing a full slate of defensive players, reusing spare wide receivers to fill defensive holes. On offense, the latest variant involves doing lots of weird things with tight ends.

Secondary theory: there are no sure-thing players. Stockpile second-round draft picks.

Jets theory: Our road to a championship necessarily runs through the Patriots. The Patriots have a great quarterback, so we need great defensive backs. The Patriots cultivate quiet dignity to compensate for shady past; we’ll make noise.

Ravens theory: Most teams consider defense superfluous. We’ll build around a superior defense and hope for the best.

Bears theory: Prior to 2009, the Bears were running a 40-year experiment on the proposition that quarterbacks were far less important than everyone else thought. Surrounding adequate quarterbacks with a superior cast sometimes worked well, but usually didn’t.

In 2009, the Bears shrugged and traded the farm for a good quarterback. Since then, their distinctive theory has been the conjecture that special teams matter.

Vikings theory: The Vikings have long thought that they were just one terrific player away from winning everything. Minnesota is always grabbing end-of-career superstars, hoping to catch fire. They have come surprisingly close, suggesting the theory might work better in football than it does in baseball, where it has been thoroughly discredited. A side-effect has been neglect of role players, making their special teams the opposite of the Bears’.

Broncos theory: A series of unpredictable mishaps left the Broncos with a college-caliber quarterback they didn’t particularly want. Instead of wasting time, the Broncos installed a college-style offense that fits their college-style quarterback. Most teams who have looked at this concept have resisted, fearing their quarterback would get hurt, but the Broncos were willing to accept that risk since they didn’t really want this quarterback anyway.

A corollary is that, while it can be hard to teach the pro game to college-level players, almost every pro player used to play in a college offense. Besides, they’re pros, and they’re good at learning crazy new stuff.

Raiders theory: Long term: penalties don’t matter. Finesse doesn’t matter. All those things everyone says are important? They don’t matter. Long passes matter, line play matters, chemistry matters.

Short term: “Hey, look! We’re contenders! How did that happen?” Not expecting to win anytime soon, the Raiders see an incredibly-brief window of opportunity and mortgage their coming years for one shot at the prize. Flags fly forever.

Colts theory: The best play to run is the play the defense can’t cover. Other teams try to guess what the opposing defense might do; the Colts come out, look it over, and then decide what to try.

Eagles theory: Michael Vick is a unique talent. Now, can we figure out how to use him in a football game, before he’s too old and fragile to play?

Some teams, I think, have no theory. They wander aimlessly from season to season. Buffalo, it seems to me, is like that. At the other end of the scale we have the Giants and the Saints.

Some teams are changing their theories on the fly. Offhand, I think these include San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Carolina. It can be hard to distinguish a change of theory from luck-driven aberration.

Teams that seem to have theories, but I can’t figure out what they might be: San Diego, Dallas, Green Bay, KC, Washington.