From Round to Square (and back)

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Monday, September 10, 2012

The Cortex Chronicles (1f)—Contrapuntal

[a] Counter punts RF
Click here for the other elements of this mini-essay on punting and brain chemistry:
          1a—Punting and Strategy         1b—Punting and Downs             1c—Punting and Trolleys
          1d—Punting and Thinking         1e—Long Synapses Punts         1f—Contrapuntal

This is it. A series of six straight posts on punting wraps up today, and we have considered all of the main points—coaches, punters, centers...and trolley cars. It's all about the transmission of information from unit to unit (both within and between). How it all gets done is a thing at which to marvel. The Axons are tied with (to?) the Dendrites 17-17 as we near the two-minute warning. If punting strategy has held in our little game, we have prevented any situation that has allowed our opponent to start an offensive series in good field position. Using time-honored and frontal cortex-approved strategy, we have chosen field position over the chance for more points. We're just too scared to do otherwise.
[b] Full circle RF

And now we come full circle, back to the New York Times article that I have mentioned repeatedly throughout this series of posts. If you recall (as I have asked you to do several times before), the counterpoint to field position strategy is going for it—focusing on maintaining offensive momentum in every case in which one play has a reasonably good chance of getting you a few yards...and not giving the ball to the other team. We have discussed the reasons why coaches do not often employ this strategic approach. The ol' frontal cortex is likely to control any fleeting images of future success by sending vivid memories of botched plans—memories so painful that NFL Films shows them over and over for decades. Even "perfect" teams have ugly moments, and coaches remember them all.

Every single one, but especially this one: 

You will notice that Garo Yepremian in the clip above was not a punter. My point is that anything can go wrong, and more things go wrong under pressure (such as going for it on fourth-and-short) than in a controlled kicking situation. That they can veer disastrously off-course even then just goes to show how touchy this all can be for coaches. Below are just a few examples of how hopeful wishes were slapped down even when there was little choice but to run a fourth down play (this often happens at the goal line at the end of games). A special kind of drama ensues, and it concentrates the urgency of fourth down in special ways. We can learn a little something from it.  

[c] Teammates RF

Yup, even the venerable Joe Namath couldn't get this done on one of football's greatest stages. Coaches seem to have their frontal cortices soaked in the marinade of hopeful strategies that turned to ugly failure. It is, as we have seen, asking a great deal of a coach to exercise a strategy of counterpoint after all of the failure he has seen over the decades.

He needs one. He needs a contrapuntal approach to break through the safety of field position.

Let's conclude, though, by thinking in a little detail about this counterpoint. How would a coach do it? What would be required in terms of personnel and game plans? Could a coach pull it off as a coherent plan? Let's examine this carefully and then call it a week.

So what do we need? Good team. Great offense; stunning defense. 

Those are the prerequisites, and I have not really said anything here that every football fan doesn't already know. A special kind of two-pronged ability is required, you see. There need to be several options for fourth down success—perhaps a particularly sand-paper handed tight end, a fleet wide-receiver for that just-in-case head-scratcher play that seemingly raises risk levels beyond what a more restrained coach would "call," and perhaps a crafty dual-ability practitioner who can block, run, and even throw, to be used as a decoy and a very special enabler of drama. You need all of that if you are going to be able to throw enough diverse offensive resources at the problem. You need to be supple and even innovative if you're going to succeed time after time. You need to have nuance, and...
[d] Sledge RF

Oh, crap. I forgot the most important thing of all. In order to forgo punting in most cases that require three or fewer yards, you need to have...Earl Campbell.

Really, you do. If you don't have "him," you can just forget the rest of the subtlety that I mentioned above. None of that stuff will work without Earl. With an ordinary running back, you will be crushed just often enough for the coach's frontal lobe (not to mention that of the general manager and owner) to start buzzing with cautionary information. 

You need Earl, and you need him bad.* 
*Correct grammatical form just seems so out of place here. 

You need a workhorse running back who will "always" be able to punch through a tough defensive line—the guy who will get you three yards in a cloud of dust, mud, sweat, blood, and tears. Earl Campbell—the guy you need on your team if you don't want to punt much—was a sledgehammer runner. You need that. If you don't have it, if you only have a scrawny little guy who weaves and spins, but can't run right over big, tough defensive linemen...well, you might want to go back to the careful strategy and just punt. 

You need to have Earl. 

Let's wrap it up now. You seem to have all of the parts in place. You are an already successful coach, have understanding managers and owners above you and, below, assistant coaches who are completely on-board with your approach. You have played Madden NFL 13, and you didn't punt "there." Now that you're a coach, you don't plan to punt...much (fourth and thirty from your two yard line is a good time to test bubba's leg). In most cases, though, you are going to develop offensive momentum, run over the opposition (or fake 'em out with a little pass to your tight end). You will make up for the few times you don't succeed on fourth down with all the points you will score when you do. With this strategy, you plan to win 38-16, and not 10-7. You have it down (so to speak).

Ummm...except in a very close game against a truly tough opponent. Gosh. We're going to need one more thing. 
[e] Enlightened RF

Yup, that's it. We need a defense of such strength that there is a formidable cushion, even if you blow it on fourth down from your own forty. A great defense just pins them there and gives you the ball back. It is so dominant that you will be on the offensive road again soon. This sounds good, and even pretty easy. Just get a great defense and have them stifle the other team's momentum. Three and out. Then they punt (their coach is not as enlightened as you are). You get the ball back, and get back to your plan.

All you need is to have a defense like the 1985 Chicago Bears. That's all.

So that's where we will leave this series of posts. Whole bunches of fans and football cognoscenti dislike punting and "small ball" field position strategy. I have argued that the same reasons you don't spend most weekends dancing with a lampshade on your head (your fully developed frontal cortex is at work) play into head coaching decisions to punt even for minimal gains that will bore the television audience to the point that fans under thirty will just go back to their computers, where football is more fun.

All I can say is that it's a long way to Tipperary...and football coaches think too much. In short, I don't think that we're likely to see much less punting anytime soon. I wish it were otherwise, but I just can't stop thinking about how difficult this all is. Darnit, but my own frontal cortex is getting in the way of my passionate desire to defend a go for it and punt only when necessary strategy. I just can't get around all that could go wrong, and there really is only one solution (one I completely reject). If the frontal cortex is too dominant in football decision making, could we...weaken it a bit?

Ummm. No. Absolutely not. As Dorothy Parker put it many years ago:

I guess we'll be punting...a bunch. For now.

Click here for the other elements of this mini-essay on punting and brain chemistry:
          1a—Punting and Strategy         1b—Punting and Downs             1c—Punting and Trolleys
          1d—Punting and Thinking         1e—Long Synapses Punts         1f—Contrapuntal
[f] Frontal RF

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