The best sentences I read today

As I continue to watch Michigan’s quarterback run the read option against the [Minnesota] Gophers, I now find myself wondering if this play is authentically simple or quietly complex. The read option is a combination of three rudimentary elements of football: spreading the field, running a back off tackle, and the quarterback keeper. It would be an easy play to teach and a safe play to run, even for junior high kids. But it’s still new. It didn’t really exist in the 1970s and ’80s, and when I first saw it employed in the late ’90s, it seemed like an idiotic innovation. It seemed like a way to get your quarterback killed without taking advantage of your tailback. I had always believed teams could not succeed by running the ball out of the shotgun formation. I thought it would never happen. But I was wrong. And I suspect the reason I was wrong was not because I didn’t understand what was happening on this specific play; I suspect it was because I felt like I already understood football. I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see. . . .

. . . Barry Sanders running to daylight. Earl Campbell running to darkness. Settling for a field goal late in the first half. Playing for field position when the weather is inclement. Blocking sleds. Salt tablets. Richard Nixon’s favorite sport. That’s what football is, always — and if we stopped believing that, it would seem to matter less.

But that isn’t what football is.

It isn’t. It changes more often than any sport we have. Football was Nixon’s favorite sport, but it was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite, too. Football coaches will try anything. They’re gonzo. . . .

. . . I don’t know what I see when I watch football. It must be something insane, because I should not enjoy it as much as I do. I must be seeing something so personal and so universal that understanding this question would tell me everything I need to know about who I am, and maybe I don’t want that to happen. But perhaps it’s simply this: Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.

The above is from an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s new book, Eating the Dinosaur, that appeared on ESPN.com You can find many more good sentences at the link.

  • Damn, that excerpt is stirring. I can remember watching the Run and Shoot and hating it because it wasn’t the football I had grown up appreciating. The fact that I appreciate a much wider variety of offenses today I take as a sign of personal evolution.

  • Andrew Alexander

    Wow that was good. he is a great writer.

  • 4.0 Point Stance

    I never thought of myself as a Klosterman fan, mostly because he uses so many obscure references. But this was great. I guess I like him a lot more when he uses obscure references I’m actually able to understand.

  • That bit about only knowing assumed truths is one of the most jarring realizations a person can have in life, but it’s probably the most important. After that, a person can be free to think clearly instead of just following the herd. It’s one of the reasons I like your site, Chris: you advocate thinking—and that’s not just a football thing, it’s a life thing.

  • OldSouth

    Most interesting: what happens when football strategy starts to encroach on rules made for policy of how the game ought to be played? By this, I mean rules that are made obviously with some determination of how football”ought” to be played, above and beyond rules meant to ensure safety, fairness, etc. An example of this is the prohibition of the A-11 offense. Some rules are clearly meant to ensure standardized equipment and safety precautions, but some clearly seem designed to constrain the way the game should be played, and how it will evolve.

    What happens when the game evolves and starts encroaching on those policies?

  • CoachingHopeful

    Interesting thoughts on the A-11, but I disagree with your interpretation of the decision that banned it. The A-11 guys merely found a loophole in rules that had been put on the books decades ago and exploited it for a couple of years. Then the loophole was “clarified” to assert the original intent of the rule: outlawing tackle eligible plays.

    Looking at it, it was ridiculous to say that all teams need to have 5 offensive linemen who are ineligible to catch forward passes on the field at all times… unless the person taking the snap (theoretically a punter or FG holder) is at least 7 yards deep in the shotgun. Even then, the 5 men on the interior of the line were still ineligible. The exception to the rule was put in to make it easier for a team to staff special teams, not to put 11 guys on the field who could theoretically line up and go out for a pass on any play.

    When confronted with the question “well, why not just eliminate the ineligible numbers rule altogether so all offenses can run tackle eligible or whatever they like” the A-11 guys simply refused to comment. Now, I personally wish the ineligible numbers rule was overturned, but no one ever talked about that.

  • CoachingHopeful

    I love this excerpt, Chris. Thank you for posting it. I know of Klosterman’s writing more from his music pieces, but this is some of the finest writing about football I’ve ever read.

  • Homyrrh

    I regret not being aware of Klosterman’s affinity for American football earlier than this; this was genuinely one of the better essays I’ve ever read on the game, and thank you greatly for the link.

  • Zac

    Wow…….. I remember having the same shift in consciousness towards the spread to run offense about a year ago…….. I used to hate it……. So much…… But when I get back into coaching high school ball, I will run it……. Because it is stupid not to…… Unless you have a great passer who is just not at all athletic…… Which some might argue is just as unlikely as having a good passer who is the most athletic kid on your team.

  • Great stuff and thanks for sharing. My ‘holy sh*it’ moment was in 1995 when Tommie Frazier got into the shot gun and Dr Osborne sent in the QB counter play. When the ball was snapped and Frazier faked the hand-off across his face to Phillips who filled backside and the guard/tackle pulled playside for the classic counter ‘kick-out/gut’ blocks with Frazier right behind them… it was like seeing heaven!

    I went from a dedicated delaware wing-t guy to a shot gun (dual threat – I get it) spread offense guy in about 5 seconds… sort of like leaving your girlfriend of 4 years after one look from a girl in a bar! (or something… ??)

    What a great game… looking forward to the future and more ‘disruptive innovations’.

    One thing I’ll end with… the field’s always going to be 53.4 yds by 100 yds.. that’s not changing… so the concept of ‘spreading’ the field and leveraging the numbers that a dual threat ‘athlete’ accepting the snap in a shot-gun gives an offense will continue to lead the innovation.

  • OldSouth

    Coaching hopeful, you’re right, I did use a poor example. Perhaps a better one might be the liberalization of forward pass rules once strategy moved in that direction.

  • MTK

    “Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged.” It must be rewarding for Klosterman to write what everyone feels but cannot otherwise communicate. That’s a beautiful sentence, indeed.

  • Josh Paddock

    My one and only gripe with the Klostermann piece is his perpetuation of the Bob “Tiny” Maxwell myth. I just finished writing my senior research thesis on Theodore Roosevelt and his involvement in the creation of the NCAA. Roosevelt really didn’t have much to do with the reform movement in college football. In my opinion he was a figurehead (albeit an important one.) In October 1905 Roosevelt called a meeting at the White House between himself and the heads of Harvard, Princeton and Yale (“The Big Three”) to discuss the violence in football. The problem with the Maxwell myth is that a) the White House meeting was scheduled several weeks BEFORE the Swarthmore game in question and b) no record of the photograph exists. The person, according to my research, who had the most impact was Henry MacCracken. He was the chancellor of NYU and had called a meeting of 13 football playing schools (and a subsequent meeting of 64 schools) to discuss rule changes neccessary to the game. He called that meeting AFTER the Big Three dragged their feet and proved less than willing to pursue real reform. Roosevelt also had no legal authority to ban college football, except at the service acadamies through his role as commander-in-chief.

    I realize this is a serious case of splitting hairs and doesn’t take anything away from the Klosterman piece. However, when you spend so much time on a subject (no matter how esoteric it is) you want to set the record straight whenever possible.

    At the risk of shameless self-promotion my e-mail address is joshuapaddock@hotmail.com, and if anyone is interested I’d be more than happy to send you a copy of my thesis or share my research. I’m thinking of expanding this for my master’s thesis and I would gladly welcome criticism from intellectual football fans like yourselves.

  • Topher

    “When the ball was snapped and Frazier faked the hand-off across his face to Phillips who filled backside and the guard/tackle pulled playside for the classic counter ‘kick-out/gut’ blocks with Frazier right behind them… it was like seeing heaven!

    I went from a dedicated delaware wing-t guy to a shot gun (dual threat – I get it) spread offense guy in about 5 seconds…”

    I find your statement incongruous, since the play you describe sounds like a bona fide Wing-T counter play, just run out of the shotgun (drawn up on a board, it’s like Frazier is the halfback and they just removed the under-center QB from the action entirely. You must run quite a package, since I’ve seen very few spread offenses that were sophisticated in the run blocking (most are simple zone/I-formation blocking with the formation taking away defensive numbers).

    But if you took Wing-T plays and moved them into a shotgun package, sounds like a good plan and more power to you. That’s exactly what Hugh Wyatt was doing when he invented the Wildcat package in the late 90’s – running his Wing-T-influenced Double Wing offense with a direct snap to deal with the fact his quarterback went down in practice.

    What’s so interesting about football is how the “advances” do in cycles, combining old-but-new-again ideas with the latest stuff to make hybrid schemes that become novel themselves. And the same advances can be made independently across the country, for different reasons, evolving into very similar schemes but with different motivations.

    This all the more sillifies the NFL pundits’ claim that there is a platonic “true offense” and the rest is just gimmicks.

  • Dennis Metzger

    You have an excellent column and this is one of the few responses that I have posted. What you didn’t “get” is that the Qb is the Tb in the shot gun spread; that is why most of the spreads and Wildkats that we are seeing are simply the Single Wing from years ago. From what I’ve read a l,ot of people had the same problem making the shift from the Single Wing to the T until it started having a lot of success. Also please be aware of the Single wing blocking schemes that made they way to the Wing-T as designed by Iowa and Delaware.

  • The Wyatt wildcat is a tight double wing version of the double T (dual T), the backs receiving the snap being so close to the snapper as to have much more T formation character than single wing. The other types of wildcat are much closer or identical to shotugn than to single wing, because in wildcat and shotgun the snap does not lead the receiver of the snap; rather, the snap is caught flat footed or backpedaling. In single wing (or short punt or Notre Dame box or Tulsa box) the snap is a lead, something you can’t say of either the Wyatt or other wildcats.

    The pro & college wildcat exists only as a package within a broader offense. If that were the primary formation the team used, you’d just call it shotgun. You call it “wildcat” or some such only because the player receiving the snap is different from the player they have receiving the snap otherwise.

  • Topher – You can see the difference of gaining an extra blocking surface (aka: another blocker or ‘9 blockers vs 10 blockers’) when you run the counter with the QB (or ‘single wing/dual threat athlete) as opposed to a QB in the wing-t handing the ball off to the TB to run the counter.

    I do agree it is the same ‘counter’ play, but with an extra blocker at the POA or offensive skill player the defense has to account for on the perimeter.

    On another point, in 1995 everyone associated a ‘shot gun’ formation with a Roger Staubach type offense or ‘run and shoot’ that was pass heavy ala the Houston Oilers at the time. Not many (if any) incorporated a run philosophy with a counter scheme out of the shot-gun, that was the part of it that hit me.

  • Topher

    Spread – I didn’t want to criticize, I was just noting that it sounded like you combined styles rather than ditching one for the other – always a smart move. If you kept a Wing-T style you were a step ahead of the zone running games in pass-first shotgun offenses, giving your package that much more punch. Hope you are having success!

    The spread formation also gives you good passing options on the edge (single-coverage fades, screens, bubble screens) that don’t require large amounts of practice time the way a full drop-back passing game does, but that you can’t get in a tight Wing-T setup.

    When I was in college (DIII), we played a shotgun team that ran lots of power and counter, and a bit of zone read before it was hip to do so. That cemented to me that you can run a “real” misdirection rushing offense out of the gun.