Monday, December 19, 2011

Turnovers Don't Stop the March of Time

Perhaps the best way to consider the Patriots' win over the Broncos yesterday is to think of it as a living football history lesson, a three-hour, three-dimensional seminar on the evolution of offense.

The forward pass was legalized in 1906. For the next 50 years, teams still ran the ball far more often than they threw it, even at the highest skill level of the NFL. NFL teams with reputations for throwing the ball in those eras had some extraordinary athlete either throwing or catching the ball -- Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson, like that. Even so, their teams still ran more often than they threw.

Running was easier. It was simpler to teach, learn, and most of all, was less risky than passing. Remember that saying only three things can happen on a pass and two of them are bad? Ridiculous, right? Well, smart people in football believed it, and they weren't utterly wrong to do so. Most passers weren't very good. It was only by the mid-'50s that there were enough quality quarterbacks to supply a majority of NFL teams with decent passing, and there were only 12 NFL franchises.

Bit by bit, coaches noticed that passing the ball scored points more quickly than running it, and passing gradually become something close to an equal partner on offense. But even in the 1960s and '70s, what people think of as the start of pro football's modern era, coaches and players had an emotional preference for running the ball. The pre-merger NFL sneered at the old AFL's commitment to passing offense as an unmanly admission that its players weren't tough enough to run and try to stop the run the way Walter Camp intended. Check out the statistics from Super Bowls I-XI. The team that ran best won, one reason the Super Bowl developed its early reputation as the season's dullest game.

Then came the great holding deregulation of 1978, because blockers weren't able to stop defensive players on runs OR passes. And along came a chap named Bill Walsh, who divined that the changes had made passing easier than running, not simpler to teach and learn, but easier to succeed with, and actually less risky than running. Walsh's 49ers became the first team to win two NFL championships without a Hall of Fame running back, but not the last.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Football offense has totally reversed its priorities. EVERYBODY passes to score and runs to run time off the clock once they have scored. Teams that don't are anomalies, contrarian investors in scoreboard futures. They usually have an extraordinary athlete at running back, and a subpar passer at quarterback and/or their head coach has testosterone where his frontal lobes should be.

The Broncos are the ultimate contrarians. Their offense is built around Tim Tebow, a single wing tailback born into the wrong era of the pigskin continuum. Denver's offense is so outlandish, its success became a national sensation. Face it. Tim Tebow could be the same charismatic Christian role model he is right now. If he was winning games for Denver with a 90-plus passer rating, America's reaction would be "How nice for him. What channel are the Packers on today?"

As we saw yesterday, being anachronistic does not make the Broncos' offense unproductive. The damage it did to the New England defense in the first quarter was awesome to behold.

But all things being equal in pure talent, that is, if the other team has a passer as good as Tom Brady, running, no matter who good you are at it, IS riskier than passing. It is a form of trying to score points that is too influenced by outside variables, more damaged by turnovers, fatally damaged by playing from behind against a more conventional squad. When the money's on the table, the big plays in a game are passes. That won't be changed until the NFL changes its rules back to what they were decades ago, which of course will never happen.

Tebow can play quarterback in the NFL. Given health, he'll likely be a starter for quite some time. But he'll always be an anomaly, not a trend-setter. He's a curiosity now, and that's what he'll be five years from now.

Conventional wisdom gets that way because it's right at least 50.00001 percent of the time. Contrarian investors die by the bromide "the market can stay wrong longer than you can stay solvent."

Smart fish learn to swim downstream. The shortest distance between two points on the gridiron is the easiest path you can find.


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