Friday, August 25, 2017

Football Flim-Flammery

College football is coming back and at some point some sorry team is going to be swindled, bamboozled, flim-flammed because their opponent is doing something they’re not supposed to and football is the most supposed to sport ever conceived.

There are few things more satisfying than watching your team pull off a trick play and leaving opposition hornswoggled to oblivion; the only thing better is watching an opponent dial up a failed trick play that snowballs into football disaster to the point where the only word to describe a coach's scheme is foiled.

Football's bloated maximalism means that it is not just a sport of people flinging themselves into each other with restless abandon, but flinging themselves at each other with reckless abandon within the strictures of an impenetrable and inscrutable set of ossified rules several of which remain vestiges on the books but unobserved, almost like religion.

Only the fanatics practice the Old Ways as seen in 
this mosaic of abandoned football practice

It is the only sport where the defining coach move is to defiantly rip off the headset because of course the coach is wearing a headset to talk to the coordinators in the booths above, why the sideline is swamped by laminated binders and Official Tablets of the National Football League and elaborate pictograms of Lee Corso and internet memes, why every single play starts with a brief meeting conducted in an insane and incomprehensible football argot codified into Domesday-thick playbooks, why every five minutes the referees gather under daguerreotype camera hoods to look at pixels and the beefiest among them attempts to explain whether something is a catch, the gravest epistemological question of our time.

Football's elaborate Court of the Sun King ruleset allows the slightest deviations to throw an entire game into giddy chaos: an unexpected guy is throwing the ball, a lineman has declared himself eligible (in the NFL, this requires a literal Declaration of Eligibility read over the PA system), a great big fat person handles the ball in any way.  Football coaches seethe and complain when they become victims of trickery-- rival coaches banned the A11 Offense that was entirely based on a high school loophole that allowed teams to ignore rigid rules on offensive line formation by lining up at all times in a punt return formation in a football version of fraudulent accounting; Mike Ditka got so angry about Bill Walsh using an offensive lineman as a fullback that he started giving the ball to William "The Refrigerator" Perry over and over, building an entire gimmick offense off of indignation about the unconventional use of fat men.

With so many moving parts, with roles so specialized that people are constantly running to and from the field of play because they need to install the Third Down Pass Rushing Package, it is possible for teams to dupe their opposition just by counting on them to lose track of all the people punching in and out.  The Ringer's Rodger Sherman had a fun article tracking how teams have had tiny backs hide behind behemoth lineman, unsportingly pretend to get subbed out, and camouflage themselves into the endzone only to pop out like the time Rambo disguised himself as an entire forest. 

Football has its moments of outright cheating as well.  Pop Warner used to hide the ball in secret compartments and sew patches onto jerseys that look like footballs and instantly transform their offense into a hall of mirrors where the defender tackles a guy who stands up empty handed while the rest of the offense taunts him with synchronized cackling. Contemporary football cheating, however, has become stilted and artless.  The most egregious recent case has been the Great Ball Deflation Media Event, a scandal so preposterously stupid that it involved the United States Supreme Court. Other sports have much better chicanery.  The best cheating in any sport right now is in cycling where some enterprising bicycle miscreants have set up hidden motors.  They call this "motodoping," easily the weirdest and most insane possible name for this practice, like robbing someone by threatening to hit them over the head with a 1990s computer monitor and calling it "Cybertheft 2020: Compucrime."

 College football represents the zenith of football chaos.  The staid NFL, with its strict rules on player numbering and overwhelming concern with illegal pants and sock combinations does its best to deliver a uniform product.  College teams, rife with gulfs in talent and resources, will resort to any strategy to gain an edge.  Recruiting is governed by absurd guidelines impossibly byzantine and ineffectual policed by an army of weirdo bureaucrats whose entire life revolves around sidling up to enormous college students and asking them how they paid for that tattoo and unhinged, self-deputized fans on maniacal social media detective sprees, desperate to prove that some player or coach has broken some inane NCAA rule even as every team breaks every rule while hurling accusations at their rivals.

College football returns this Saturday in all its anarchic glory, and someone is going to fake a punt. Some overmatched coach will try a desperation flea flicker, order a wide receiver to throw a pass, line up in Wing T formation, set up a complex chain of events that ends with a 350 pound tackle either thundering triumphantly towards the endzone in a wake of defensive backs trucked beyond recognition or getting too excited, not having any idea what to do, losing the ball in sun flash from a waggling trombone and watching the pass bounce off his helmet and into infamy.  A coach will use two quarterbacks.  A coach will use no quarterbacks.  A coach will storm onto the field, red as a cartoon thermometer, laminated playcards streaming from his coaching pants, to protest the Eligibility of the Downfield Lineman because he has no other recourse, he's been had, it's technically in the rules for that fullback to throw that lateral, there's nothing he and the thousands of slack-jawed, incredulous fans can do about it, and it might have Playoff Implications.  

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