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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Cortex Chronicles (1a)—Punting and Strategy

[a] In Decision 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

It's fourth down. You had your chance (three of them, actually) to move the ball ten yards forward. You have failed to do so. Let's say that it is "fourth and two." According to the rules of American tackle football, you actually have one more chance, but you had better think hard about what you're going to do. Great things are at stake.

Imagine that you are the head coach; you make the big decisions. You could run one more play. If you advance two yards and clear the ten-yard marker (we call this a "first down"), you get a fresh set of opportunities ("downs") to advance another ten yards. It's a little like nineteenth century warfare and field strategy that way—steady, incremental advances are rewarded, and flying leaps of long bomb faith are discouraged. The  powers of the old Big Ten Conference in the 1970s (when it actually had ten teams) was known for the grind-it-out strategy that "moved the chains" slowly, overwhelmingly, and in crushing fashion for an opponent who rarely got to see the ball. Final scores might only be 17-7 or 21-3, but the victory was of the thrashing kind for all who watched. You see, if you can keep moving ten yards down the field in three-plus yard increments (on average), you will reach the promised land of the end zone. In time—lots of it (all of which your opponent cannot use).

That old strategy was aptly called "three yards and a cloud of dust."
[b] Incoming RF

What happens if you don't make it, though? What happens if you find yourself—after three failed attempts—short of your incremental goal? You then take one more shot, but the consequences of failure are significant. If you don't make it, you must give the ball over to the other team. You lose possession. Although it is not as serious as giving over all of your equipment, horses, mules, and rations to Confederate raiders, you still lose any momentum you had gained. It is only football, but you give up the ball. That can't be good, can it?  Nope, and you have to give it up right there, at the site of your failure. It is a little like nineteenth century warfare in that way, too. In other words, if you are on the very verge of your short-term goal (a "first down"), but fail to advance, you must turn to defense. Right there, right then.

Unless you punt the ball.
***   ***
I have tried to time this correctly. Football fans must be biting their lips with frustration (I am checking my watch)...right about now.  

This is so obvious, I hear you cry, that you can't tolerate it any longer. You've been watching football all your life, and you already know this—all of it. My response? Whoa, Nellie! Just slow down, cowpoke. On the one hand, the rules and strategies for American tackle football are not any more obvious to many of the readers in Round and Square's 119 countries (and growing) than the rules of cricket are to you, big guy. Think you know sumo? You'll be laughed right off that imaginary dohyō (土俵) in your living room. Just give the ol' stomach a nice pat and show a little ethnographic imagination here, o.k.? Don't get your mawashi (廻し) all in a knot. Pretend you are a fieldworker in the lush, green grasses (marked every yard with hash marks and lined by horizontal stripes every five yards or so) of a South Seas island. Think about it, and let your mind run.
[c] Blocked RF

Let us call that island "Stadium." Hang with me here.

You see, there is more. Much more. This goes beyond appreciation for the burgeoning world of athletic-cultural understanding in a post-Olympiad universe. My discussion of fourth-down decision-making has little to do with football, and everything to do with the relationship between the human frontal lobe and the brain's limbic system. In other words, we will be exploring the relationship between emotion, urgency, and "thinking twice" here. Football is just the sideshow.

Before we get to brain chemistry, let's look at a particularly good article from the New York Times about this very issue (the football part of it, at least).  

If we follow the article, we are led to believe that coaches, when they really consider the situation in isolation, are intrigued by the idea of punting less and running more plays. They even see the potential for an exciting post-punt world of on-field decision-making. This is an exhilarating thing for sports fans to read, because head football coaches are a distinctly careful breed, beaten down over the years into the stewards of cautious, incremental approaches to negotiating the structures of the gridiron. This usually happens to them in the course of watching dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of perfectly good ideas go horribly awry. They get a little gun shy, as people said in the pugilistic American Old West. No small wonder. A botched punt is a little bit like shooting oneself in the foot. So, before we proceed further, let's look a little bit at the punt in American football, from booming seventy yarders to those that go shank in the night.  

[d] Fourth down RF

The strategy is all about moving the ball down the field. Imagine that you are stuck, fourth-and-eight, on your own ten yard line. You don't want another passing or running play. You just want to get that ball out of the Bay of Pigskin, out of the danger zone where your opponent could score if you make any mistake, fumble, or misplay at all. For those who don't watch football, you are ninety yards from your goal; your opponent has just ten to go, even if you don't do something. Fast. So what do you do? You get one of those terrific college punters you just saw in the clip, above, to boom the ball deep into the territory of your opponent—the sphere hanging in the air while your "special teams" unit—rushes headlong down the field. If done perfectly, the ball will remain suspended in the air (this is called "hang time") for five or more seconds, and the defense will pin your opponent back at the twenty yard line. Or so.

That is a best-case scenario, so spectacular that it happens only rarely (the greatest professional punters average between forty and forty-five yards a punt, although there are reasons why the averages differ from what they can do on an open field). Nonetheless, netting seventy yards on the gridiron battlefield is quite an accomplishment, and grateful coaches will do everything but recommend a higher salary to the team's general manager or mention the punter in post-game discussions. Or nominate him for the Hall of Fame.

Kickers are just short of anonymous, you see.

That will have to be enough for today. We learned (or reviewed, football fans) a little bit about punting, field strategy, and (through the New York Times) the reticence of coaches to experiment with their careers in the hopes of uncertain success. That's a mouthful in itself. Tomorrow, we'll look more deeply at the neurobiology of coaching, and examine why Confucius may have gotten it right—Vince Lomabardi among the philosophy-studying disciples of early China—2,500 years ago. 

Stay tuned. It's all about the kicking leg...and the head coach's frontal lobe.

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
[e] Frontal RF

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