Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Getting Nowhere Fast

So I took the month of August off.  Seems like most everyone around here did.  And it's a little difficult trying to find a new job in that kind of climate, when your e-mails go out and you don't even know if they ever got to where they were intended to go.  But that's not what this story is about.

Back to September, back to school, back to yes, NFL Football.  The megalithic spectacle of contemporary American sport.  The beast that devours all American television programming, and in many ways, all American culture.  I have been an NFL fan since I was a child, and I always look upon the beginning of a new season as a chance to indulge in hours and hours of... pretty much the only thing I really watch on television anymore.

This past weekend was Kickoff Weekend of the new NFL season.  And boy, was it ever boring.

One of the enduring axioms of the grand old criminal racket known as Boxing has always been that "styles make fights."  The entertainment value of a fight is related to the tactics each fighter uses in battle.  Two guys do the same thing, you get a boring fight.  Well, that's football now.  Everyone does the same thing, and it looks very technical, but it achieves surprisingly little.

I have in front of me the Sports Illustrated NFL season preview.  Oh, the fireworks it promises!  The breathless enthusiasm!  "Why no record is safe!"  Quarterbacks and receivers throwing, catching, pirouetting in an endless ballet of airborne majesty and orgiastic touchdown scoring.  But it's not true.  Yes, they're throwing more than ever.  But they're doing less with it.

An astute stat-based website, Cold Hard Football Facts, points out that even though more passers are throwing more than ever, and they're doing it more accurately, this is not the highest-scoring era of NFL football.  That time was actually the 1950s... an era most consider a dinosaur age of passing football.  But in those times, teams ran the football to move it down the field, and threw it... to score.  Today's passing game appears to be, throw the football to... look as busy as possible.  You know someone where you work who does that, don't you?

I watched, at length, possibly the highest quality matchup of the weekend.  The San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers.  High-scoring Green Bay, at home at legendary Lambeau Field, quarterbacked by the record-setting reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.  Let the fireworks begin!  And yes, the intent was there.  Green Bay played virtually the entire game on offense with four or five receivers.  Rodgers in the shotgun.  They often had a receiver playing the running back position!  Yet against the monolithic and methodical 49ers, they played the entire game from behind, and lost.

In theory the whole thing works just like the "Four Verticals" play diagrammed above.  You dispatch a bevy of fleet mustangs to race downfield and confuse the defenders, and gash them with rainbow throws to spots they can't possibly cover.  The scoreboard explodes.  But in practice, everybody runs around, the quarterback picks the safest guy to throw to... who is usually within five yards... and the defenders swarm him before he can go anywhere.  And you punt.  Again.

The whole thing looks like:  ineffective token run; short pass; short pass; get off the field.  Know what that is?  Canadian football!  That's why I stopped watching Canadian football in the first place!

I got excited once.  Late in the third quarter, the 49ers, nursing a slim lead, took a penalty and faced 2nd-and-15 near their own goal line.  The crowd smelled blood.  But the 49ers rolled to the left and sent a roiling phalanx of massive bodies blasting a path for the running back, seventeen yards to a fresh set of downs.  A RUN PLAY.  One which the putrid Packer "defense" was completely unable to stop, because apparently football isn't played that way anymore.  (To be fair, the Packer "defense" appears to be unable to stop any kind of football which is played.)  On the next play the 49ers did it again, only to the right side.  30 yards on two run plays!  Bodies flying like bowling pins!  Oh, now this was fun!  Time for a killer drive.  Time to put the foot on the throat, run the ball steadily down the field, impose your will and take over the game and put it to bed.

Two plays after that, the 49ers' offensive coordinator, unable to control his innovative brilliance much longer, called for a long pass.  Which of course failed miserably.  As did the inevitable expected far-too-short pass on third down, which handed all momentum back to Green Bay.  Indeed, Rodgers managed to throw a touchdown pass on the next drive.  But by the end of the day, he simply didn't throw enough of them to have made the (extraordinarly pretty) effort worth it.

I've been a football fan for a long time.  But this is merely turning into a lot of guys jumping in the air every 30 seconds, which I believe used to be called basketball.  And it's not doing what it tells everyone it's supposed to, which I believe is still called a scam.  Football, you're on notice.

I'm done now.