According to the stereotypes, geeks and jocks aren’t supposed to have overlapping interests. Yet geeks have a great deal to do with sports. The most recent public example is Moneyball, about the people that taught baseball executives that looking at things with science can improve the make-up of a team.
(The problem with Moneyball‘s system is that past performance isn’t always an indicator of future performance. But I’m sure some cruncher such as Nate Silver can factor in injuries, age, and different ballparks to their equations.)
Football, to an outsider, can just seem like a crush of bodies smashing into each other at random. One of them has the ball and the others try to tackle them. Or get the ball.
To me, the fun of football isn’t the hitting. It’s the strategy. Beginners at chess are confused by the board so it makes sense beginners at football would be confused looking at eleven players on each side, all in motion.
But this game is so geeky that it has rules as complicated as Dungeons & Dragons. That read like stereo instructions when I tried to learn on my own this year. Oops. Probably need to find a game and learn that way. Similarly, one has to watch football with someone to explain it to get it.
The complexity of football was never better illustrated than in the Super Bowl this past Sunday, with twelve seconds left in the game. That’s when the punter ran around the end zone to run time off the clock before taking a safety.
To explain why this play is geeky, I have to back up and explain what went into that decision. I’ll stick with the basics for any non-football readers.
There are three ways to score in NFL football: a touchdown, a field goal, and a safety. A touchdown is when a player possesses the ball in the other team’s endzone. That’s six points. After each touchdown, the team gets a chance for an extra point by kicking the ball through the uprights. That kick is very easy, so touchdowns are basically an automatic seven points. There’s a rule where you can run or throw the ball in the endzone for two extra points. That’s harder, as it’s easier for the opposing team to defend, but that can result in a net eight points for a touchdown.
Note: we’re getting intense about rules already and I’ve only explained touchdowns.
Field goals are when a kicker kicks the field goal through the uprights of the opposing team’s end zone. Three points. The field goal record is 63 yards. That’s partially because it’s hard to be accurate at that distance and partially because teams know it’s hard to be accurate, so they don’t even try and punt it away.
Then there are safeties. They’re weird because they come with a lot of rules that don’t apply to the other scores. First, a safety is when someone is tackled in their own end zone by the opposing team. Or when a team fumbles the ball out of bounds in their own end zone. Or when the team is called for a holding penalty in their own end zone.
Here’s the thing: sometimes it’s good to deliberately take a safety. Why give up two points? Basically, the team wants to exchange points for yards or time. If a team is backed up into its own end zone, bad things can happen, like fumbling the ball to the other team, thus allowing them to score a touchdown or throwing an interception to the other team which could also result in a touchdown.
But if the team takes a safety, this means the next play is a free kick at the twenty-yard line where the team can then kick the ball way to the other side of the field, thus making the opposing team travel all those yards to score a touchdown. That takes time and the defense of your team has a chance.
Whereas a team punting out of their own end zone can probably only make the kick to about midfield. A shorter distance for the opponent to travel.
Deliberately taking a safety isn’t done often. There have to be special conditions, like when one might decide to deliberately give away a chess piece in order to set up a better situation.
This Super Bowl, with twelve seconds left, was one of those times. Head Coach John Harbaugh made a calculation that points were less important than time left in the game. So he not only decided to deliberately take a safety, he ordered the punter to run around the end zone for as long as possible to tick off time on the game clock. By the time the safety was done, only four seconds were left.
Yes, the Ravens went from being ahead by five to being ahead by three. But they had the free kick at the twenty yard line and the 49ers had only four seconds left. That effectively meant the free kick was the last play of the game. All they had to do to win was stop the player receiving the kick from scoring, which is relatively easy.
If the Ravens had simply punted the ball out of their own end zone that would have put the ball about mid-field and given the 49ers time enough for two plays to score a touchdown that, given the quality of the quarterback and the receivers on the 49ers, could well have succeeded and won the game. (The Ravens themselves forced overtime in a playoff game this year on just such a desperation play.)
Harbaugh’s gamble could have backfired if one or two more seconds had been left on the clock. That means the return could have brought the ball close enough for a long field goal attempt to tie the game.
It would have been a long attempt, sixty yards or more. But the field was good and it was indoors, upping the odds. So it was the decision not only to take the safety but to order the punter to run around for a while and tick off time on the clock that made it a great strategic decision.
And it was so bold and unusual a decision that not even the other team expected it to happen. One of the announcers mentioned the possibility of taking the safety but dismissed it because the 49ers would still have too much time left to score a field goal. Harbaugh solved the problem by having the punter run around the end zone and use up that time.
Basically, Harbaugh outsmarted the other team. Led by his younger brother.
Sounds geeky to me.