Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The First Law of Football Means More Than All the Rest

In the summer of 1987, the rookie NFL beat reporter had his first training camp interview with an assistant coach, Dante Scarnecchia of the Patriots. At its end, the reporter admitted to some confusion about what seemed the endless complexity of NFL tactics and the jargon used to describe them.

"Relax," Scarnecchia told the rookie. "Football's a simple game, really."

In the winter of 2019, the rookie hack is long retired, sitting here writing a blog post, and Scarnecchia is still employed in the NFL as the Patriots' offensive line coach, implementing his correct theory of his sport, which he only half revealed that long ago July day. It would be more accurate to say football is a series of complex means of accomplishing the simplest possible objective -- the dominance of other people through physical force. When push comes to shove, if team A's pushers beat Team B's shovers, Team A will invariably win. The greater the dominance, the easier the win.

The quarterback is the most important single player on an NFL team, but the guys with no necks, the offensive and defensive lines, are the most important units, and their role is more vital than his. The greatest QB of his time cannot do much if the pass rush has him pulling grass out of his helmet all game long (see, Tom Brady and Super Bowl 42). A mediocre quarterback can become a champion if either his pushers or shovers play at the highest possible level (see, Trent Dilfer and Super Bowl 35).

Much has been made of how the four highest-scoring NFL teams in the regular season all made their conference title games. But to me, the most significant stat of the divisional round was supplied by Amy Trask of CBS Sports. The four winners all had ridiculous time of possession advantages, ranging from a low of "only" 13 minutes for the Rams over the Cowboys (Rams ran for 273 yards) to a 20 minute advantage for the Chiefs over the Colts. The Pats had a 17 minute ToP advantage over the Chargers. You may recall New England didn't have to punt until late in the second quarter. ?Had the game not been over by halftime, that 17 minute advantage could have been far longer.

Many a talking head has opined that time of possession is a meaningless statistic. It is true that one big play can negate the effect of 10 smaller ones. All stats, however, convey some fact. A time of possession advantage of a quarter or more conveys the fact your offensive line is kicking serious ass.

Scarnecchia's charges on the offensive line were beyond dominant last Sunday against the Chargers, tossing LA defenders around with abandon on running plays, turning the Charger pass rush into a rumor. Brady literally didn't get his hair mussed in the game. Given such a splendid opportunity to display his unsurpassable skills, he enjoyed them to the fullest.

Some of the commentators and analysts who look at too much game tape for a living have raved about the blocking schemes the Pats used on the run last Sunday. That's a significant part of pushing, the ultraviolet choreography that allows blockers to overmatch their foes at crucial points of collision.    But somebody has to teach the moves to men who must make counterintuitive steps AWAY from the nearest raging behemoth on the line to get to the proper place. In that regard, Scar is football's Bob Fosse.

There's never been a lifer assistant coach inducted in the Hall of Fame and doubtless never will be, but if it ever happens, Scarnecchia should be the first. All they'd have to put on his plaque is this. Here's a guy Bill Belichick went and asked for help (as happened when Scar came out of retirement in 2016).

Football gets overanalyzed because each game has a jillion moving parts, and each of them has some factor in its outcome. Needless to say, the Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes quarterback matchup will receive 10,000 words of pregame hype for every word about blocking. I prefer to think of that matchup in this format. Each man has been great. Whose offensive line will permit him to be greatest Sunday evening?

If the Pats blockers dominate as they did last Sunday and the Chiefs' blockers cannot, New England will win, and vice versa. The rest is filler.

Ah, but what if both of 'em are as good as they were last weekend? In that case, my prediction is bet the over.


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