After a lifetime spent watching college football, the only thing I find more disturbing than the disillusioned fan is the idea that I may have been disillusioned for most of my life. Watching college football now, I realize how little I actually know about the game. I may know the history of the game as well as most fans that I encounter; I may know the terminology of the game as well as most of these fans; and I may even surprise some fans by the obscure knowledge I have of some obscure players on some relatively obscure teams. For all of us fans that “know” the game, however, it can feel like a revelation to learn –because most of us have never been involved in the game in any organized capacity— how little we actually know about what goes into the determinations and decisions, made in football meetings, involving those “in the know” coaches of even our favorite teams.
A revelation, by my definition, is a different way of looking at something you’ve been looking at for a long time. Some revelations, such as “Coaches game plan according to the talent they have on the field” can be perceived as so obvious that it may elicit laughter from many quarters, because that’s as obvious as the nose on your face. And I’ve always known that coaches coach according to talent, but when I realized that it answered just about every complaint I’ve ever had about “my team”, I began to complain less and less. When you say that to someone that has been complaining about their coach’s game plan for longer than you’ve been alive, however, they may look at you like that’s as obvious as the nose on your face.
“We have the talent,” is something they might say if they know that you’re less familiar with “their team” than they are. “Trust me, we have the talent.” At this point, you may detect that they think you’re insulting their team, so you clarify:
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t complain, and I’m not saying you have nothing to complain about. I’m saying that most of what you’re complaining about is based on all of the decisions and determinations your coaches, offensive coordinators, and position coaches have made based on what they learn in the spring, and throughout the season, regarding how to game plan according to their team’s strengths, and weaknesses.”
“We have the talent,” he repeated.
When you have a revelation of this sort, you may want to share it, because you may believe that your friend is in an earnest search for truth in the same manner you were, you may think that they’ll chew on your revelation, and reconsider it the next time they think of complaining. When I presented my revelation to my friend, I didn’t bother to consider that I was treading upon the precarious line that exists between emotion and rational thinking. I didn’t consider that I was doing an injustice to the time-honored past-time of all fans: The art of the complaining. I basically told him that once you come to grips with the fact that the talent you believe you see on the field is probably not a very good indication of the actual talent those “in the know” know, you’ll begin to understand why the game plan of “your team” is what it is.
The gist of this complaint, as I see it, is that all fans live with the notion that their team’s quarterback (QB) is an as-of-yet, undiscovered John Elway –a player I use as a high water mark of the greatest individual talent the game has ever seen at the position of quarterback, as opposed to the other talented QB’s that happened to fit into their team’s brilliant system perfectly— and the complaint stems from the idea that the only thing holding “our team’s” QB back from recognizing that kind of potential, is the conservative game plan that the coaches decide to implement. The question I had for my friend, and all football fans, is how well do you know the strengths and weaknesses of your team’s QB? How well do you know, really know, your team’s strengths and weaknesses? He, like most fans, suggested he knew. He watched them on TV, and he went to their games, and he probably read editorials, and listened to sports radio.
When an offensive coordinator (OC) is first introduced to the potential of a newly recruited QB, he may be led to believe that the sky’s the limit with this kid, and he may develop an explosive game plan that seeks to explore the extent of that QB’s talent on the field. The OC may be as excited as the young QB to employ this explosive game plan, as it will make the OC look as brilliant as the young kid if that kid is capable of executing it. At some point in the spring workouts, and/or throughout the season, the OC begins learn to game plan around the extent of this young man’s ability. It is the OC’s job to not only explore this young man’s talent, and put him in a situation in which he can succeed, but also —and perhaps most importantly— avoid placing him in situations in which he fails too often. At this point, the OC, together with the head coach, and the team’s position coach, may deem it necessary to thin the playbook, or develop a more run-heavy, more conservative game plan. The latter fact drives most fans crazy, because no head coach, no OC, and no QB coach is going to say, “We had to make that change, because the golden boy that we worked so hard to recruit is not as good as we thought he’d be, or as good as you fans think.”
When my friend’s team’s QB first took the field last year, in 2013, the young man came out of the gate as a highly touted gunslinger. The initial game plan ended up resulting in a shockingly poor interception to touchdown ratio for the young kid. The resultant talk that sprang from that ratio –among fans, and sports radio personalities— involved replacing that QB with the as-of-yet undiscovered abilities of the backup QB. There’s an old joke that every fan’s favorite player on the field is the backup QB, and the reason for this is that, to some extent, analysts and fans learn the actuality of the starting QB’s abilities, while the extent of the backup’s are still a source of exciting speculation. The fans and analysts know that the backup, much like the starter, was a highly recruited young man that their school happened to land, but they haven’t seen him in practice, they have never attended QB meetings, and they don’t know that young backup QB’s demeanor in the manner the coaches do. When those meetings between the coach, the OC, and the position coaches conclude, and they decide that their best chances at success involve that starting QB, coupled with a new, more conservative game plan, the fans revolt in their little echo chamber, and they come to the conclusion that the coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Why did they recruit the backup if they aren’t going to use him? Didn’t they watch the games where the starter threw interceptions all over the place? The head coach, they decide, is just stubborn. He decided to start the starter, and he can’t get out of his way long enough to understand that he needs to do go in a different direction.
Regardless the emotions involved in this situation, I would think that most fans would recognize that every coach, on every level, will do whatever they have to to succeed. “No, he’s a stubborn, old rooster that always believes he’s right,” they say to this. Fair enough, I say, but if he were wrong, don’t you think that the OC, and the position coach, would tell him he’s wrong. “They probably do,” the complainer would suggest. “And I’m sure the stubborn, old rooster tells them to go to hell.” You think that this head coach is willing to lose games to prove he’s right? “I sure do. I think he’s willing to go down with the ship. We need a new coach even more than we need a new QB!”
After listening to my friend gripe about his team’s underutilized golden boy, with a golden arm, he switched the discussion to the manner in which the team audibles at the line. “Everyone in the stadium knows that they’re going to see an off tackle right when the QB audibles out of the called play.” To further my “Coaches game plan according to the talent on the field” belief, I offered my friend a response that I believed to be a helpful, if not humble, insight:
“At one point, in one season, (my team) decided to switch up the snap count, to slow, and presumably throw off the timing, of defensive ends, and blitzing defenders. The only thing they ended up doing, unfortunately, was throwing off their own offensive lineman. The result was an embarrassing amount of false start penalties. The coaches decided that their 18-22 year-old offensive lineman could not keep the switched up snap counts in their 18-22 year-old minds properly, and the coaches were forced to adjust to that by having the QB use more consistent snap counts, silent snaps, and the “slow clap snap” that has been en vogue in college football of late.” My point in introducing that humble analogy to my friend was to prove the point that a game plan has to adjust to the player personnel you have on the field. Rather than acknowledge that larger point, my friend chose to focus on those deficits that I had mentioned with regard to my team.
It’s important to note here that prior to this discussion with my friend, I held his overall intellect in high regard. I wasn’t trying to belittle a person I considered beneath me, in other words, as much as I was trying to move an otherwise silly discussion to a higher level, a level I believed was more true than I knew for most of my life, and a level that I fantasized might place me in a higher level of esteem by my friend. What I found, instead, was that my friend had an unshakable belief, a wall that that he had presumably erected for the purpose of shutting out contrary opinion, and that this wall of was based almost solely on emotion. I’m quite sure that when I repeat this story to another disillusioned fan that they will laugh, and nod, and say they’ve had such a discussion, until that discussion moves to “their team” at which point the cycle will start all over again. When it does, however, I will be armed and ready with Kenny Rogers’ prescient rules of life: “You gotta know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”