We’ve Been Watching Football All Wrong

BY MATT CRAIG | Chirp City Founder and Director of Content
In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s some breaking news: It’s football season.

This time of year when you flip on the television (for those unfamiliar, “television” is a primitive form of video streaming where you have no control over what to watch), you cannot avoid seeing one of two things: old white dudes talking about politics or old white dudes talking about football.

Unfortunately, the sermons and tirades spewed from the talking heads come to form a large part of our own opinions on both topics.

We hear about the non-stop pursuit of a franchise quarterback at all costs. We see the highlights of a leaping, one-handed grab by a wide receiver and the hurdle over a defender by a running back. And we begin to believe certain things about how football games are won.

In a lot of ways, we think about football in the same way we think about basketball.

I’d probably feel differently about superstars in football if this man was lined up as a tight end.

The most important commodity in basketball is the superstar player. His effect on the game is so enormous, his mere presence changes the status of a team.

Think about Lebron James. You know the story.  He reached the finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers before leaving for another team for four years. In that time, the Cavs never made the playoffs. Since his return, they’ve made two finals appearances and brought home a championship.

But you can see it everywhere. My beloved Oklahoma City Thunder were perennial title contenders simply based on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the supporting cast barely a footnote. Now they look like a fringe playoff team at best.

The college basketball ranks are dominated by teams who are able to land blue chip recruits out of high school, filling in with whoever shows up and doesn’t mind not getting to shoot the ball.

In recent years even the coaches don’t matter a whole lot, their primary job becoming that of a caretaker instead of a strategist. The aforementioned Cavs can fire their coach in the middle of the season and still win a championship. Why? Because they had the best player in the world on their team.

Could you imagine a football team — college or pro — firing their coach halfway through the season and winning the title in that year? That would be ludicrous.

Could you imagine a football team—college or pro—firing their coach halfway through the season and winning the title in that year? That would be ludicrous.

The problem is, all except for the most avid football junkies have seemingly always viewed and talked about football under this same premise. We like the highlights, the swag and the superstars.

But that’s not what wins football games.

malcolm gladwell.jpeg
Who could guess that a guy that looked like this would change the way I watch football.

After watching a lot of football the last couple of years, the script has completely flipped for me.

To borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast, football is a “weak-link game,” as opposed to basketball which is a “strong-link game.” This means that the worst player on a team, the weakest link, is much more important to a team’s success than the best player.

While the media echo chamber builds heroes out of quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, the people who really win football games are the glue guys.

More specifically, there are three groups of players who deserve credit.

Amy Trask, former CEO of the Oakland Raiders speaking on the show “Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons,” ranked them in this order:

  1. Offensive line: Keeping a clean pocket for the quarterback and running lanes for the running back.
  2. Defensive line: A strong pass rush to make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable on every drop-back.
  3. Secondary: Being able to disrupt passes and timing between quarterback and receivers.
You can simplify it down to just this: the team with more big, strong, fast dudes all over the field is going to win more times than not.

You can simplify it down to just this: the team with more big, strong, fast dudes all over the field is going to win more times than not.

Look no further than Sunday’s contest between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, quite possibly the greatest quarterback in the NFL. He gets to throw to legitimate studs in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. Or they can run it with Eddie Lacy!

All of that firepower added up to…263 total yards and three turnovers. Rodgers was constantly on the run from an excellent Vikings defense which tallied five sacks and eight quarterback hits. A freakishly athletic secondary shadowed Nelson and Cobb, and a beastly defensive line swallowed Lacy whole.

I want to be clear: I’m not anointing Sam Bradford.

The Vikings offense, which lost its franchise quarterback to a knee injury in the preseason and its superstar running back Adrian Peterson early in the third quarter, hummed right along with Sam Bradford under center.

Let me make something clear: Sam Bradford is not a good NFL quarterback. He’s a replacement level quarterback serving his role as exactly that, a replacement. And though I realize wide receiver Stefon Diggs looked like Randy Moss, anyone with eyeballs should be able to understand the benefit he received from the Packers stacking the box to stop Peterson.

If I know one thing for sure, it’s that the offensive line created some very clean pockets for Bradford, as evidenced by the fact that he didn’t shatter into a million pieces.

All of this is not to say that quarterbacks are not important. On the contrary, it’s the most important position in the game. But looking at football as a weak-link game, the success of a quarterback is really a reflection of the quality of the players around him.

But looking at football as a weak-link game, the success of a quarterback is really a reflection of the quality of the players around him.

Rodgers won the 2014 MVP after throwing for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns, surrounded by all of the weapons I have already listed. A year later, with multiple injuries to the offensive line and Nelson out for the year, Rodgers threw for 500 fewer yards despite 50 more attempts, as well as seven fewer touchdowns and five more interceptions.

We all remember Nick Foles, who is unanimously considered a terrible quarterback, taking over midseason for Michael Vick in 2013 and stepping into a loaded Eagles offense to throw 27 TDs and just two interceptions. A year later, Chip Kelley’s roster churn exposed him for the player he truly was.

The Patriots sit at 2-0 again this season. Their running back is James White, who’s name is as replaceable as his talent. Their receivers are a collection of short white guys. They’re using a backup quarterback in Jimmy Garrapolo, or at least were “using a backup quarterback in Jimmy Garrapolo” until he got injured in the first half of Sunday’s game. The team calmly turned to third-string Jacoby Brissett and proceeded to win the game.

The same theory applies to college football. Look at Alabama.

Here’s an expert recruiting tip Saban has learned: recruit a bunch of guys that look like this.

There’s only three things that are certain in this life and that’s death, taxes and Alabama football.

I’m not sure Nick Saban even knows who his starting quarterback is going to be when they inevitably roll into the college football playoff at the end of the year, a dilemma he has faced multiple times in the past decade while continuing to stack up championship trophies.

Does Alabama win because of its stud QBs or because 80 percent of its roster is comprised of four or five star recruits?

Think of all of the things that have to happen to complete a pass that don’t involve a quarterback at all:

One guy has to snap the ball at the perfect moment, while his four or five buddies sit perfectly still. From that frozen stance they must stand in the way of a stampede of wild bulls that is the pass-rushers, holding them off for several seconds.

Then three to four other, much smaller dudes must run extremely precise routes to the exact preordained timing, and catch a ball thrown 50 to 60 miles per hour while a guy is hanging on them. All while one much older, much whiter dude sits several hundred feet up behind a glass window and figures out which of the hundreds of plays—that the players have to memorize—he wants to run each time.

Which brings us to coaching. A football coach wears many hats, but the one that fits most snugly is that of tactician. Every coach has their own playbook on offense and schemes on defense.

But every single week he must create an individual strategy especially to match up with his opponent. Often the game is won or lost before either team even steps on the turf.

Often the game is won or lost before either team even steps on the turf.

Don’t believe that? Week 3 of college football gave you plenty of examples. Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes thoroughly embarrassed Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners, despite having equally talented teams. Bruce Arians ran circles around Dirk Koetter, baiting Jameis Winston into interception after interception.

The nuts and bolts of the machine. I won’t make the joke I had planned to here.

My point is simply this: A football team is a machine, with hundreds of moving parts. If any of the parts fail or aren’t running smoothly, the machine is faulty no matter how impressive another bigger part of the machine looks.

Just ask Colts fans, who have one of the biggest and flashiest “parts” in the NFL, on a team sitting at 0-2. The Vikings machine keeps pushing forward, currently 2-0.

As long as we keep judging football teams by basketball standards, we’re going to continue to watch football the wrong way, and misjudge how football teams win games.

It’s a weak-link game. Thanks Malcolm Gladwell.

Author: Matt Craig

Chirp City Founder & Director of Content. Hey Bill Simmons, if you're reading this, hire me.

2 thoughts on “We’ve Been Watching Football All Wrong

  1. Let’s here it O Lineman and tacticians.
    Football and Rugby (15s) are the ultimate team sports.
    Great article Matt!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *