Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reset Games: the Logic of Football

The Seahawks numbed my mind this weekend with seven punts and one failed fourth down try. But what struck me beyond the futility of it all was watching the repetition of a sequence. Before the punt, all the action stopped and two totally different groups of players ran onto the field; they punted, returned, then stopped the action, had a commercial and then two other completely different groups of specialized players ran onto the field.

Now this happens so often we take it for granted. But think about this. Unlike in life, in football all the action just STOPS. The game STOPS AND RESETS. The players huddle, coaches call different plays for offense and defense, then the down plays out and action stops and the whole cycle repeats itself.

The game stops. I mean think about it! The game just stops, everyone regroups and starts again. Would that life was so accommodating.

Football epitomizes an entire class of games I call reset games. The shape of the game and competition is determined by full stops in the action. At the end of a play, not even a point, everything stops. A new play can be called; players take their positions and then they play again. Each team has time to regroup and call a play. The reset effect is amplified because teams turn over positions—the teams switch from offense to defense with a staid almost ritual transition. So after three and out and punt, the other side gets the ball. Each team gets to play offense and defense in sequence. Volleyball, tennis, baseball and softball all have the same reset structure, but I will focus upon football.    
Reset gives a sport a particular cast. First, it injects the coach far more aggressively into the game. Each reset gives the coach time to call a play, talk/yell at players, adjust to the other side and send in substitutions. This injection makes the games more cerebral because not only can coaches call plays and substitute, but they can change a formation or recast it with new players. Each coach endlessly adjusts to micro-changes from the other side resulting in an interactive battle of wits.

Second, reset games spawn specialization and place immense stress upon stopping the other side. Not only does play stop after each point or score, but in football, if the other team does not score within an allotted time/down sequence, it loses the ball. So team defense becomes incredibly important not just to stop the offense, but to gain the ball back for the offense to score again. Volleyball and tennis changes this dynamic even more when a defensive stop actually gets a point awarded to the successful defender.  Reset games place huge emphasis upon defense and specialists.

Third, reset sports have rhythms but not flows. The reset stops play. Runs and cascading moment are discouraged; reset sports slow pacing, undercut momentum and give chances to regroup. The games move with stop/start staccato rhythms. These stops break momentum and give teams chances to recover, and unless complete collapses occur teams can claw back into games.

Fourth, reset games spawn elaboration and complexity in their offenses and defenses, and football represents the most luxuriant growth of this. Because they have the time to stop, think, reset and play again, coaches anticipate and scout and prepare packages and sets just designed for the other team. Modern football breeds unbelievable complexity in play design, scouting, adjustment and specialization. All this is made possible by the combination of reset and substitutions.

The pattern of allowed substitutions profoundly alter reset games. Free substitutions permit coaches to constantly tinker with teams and invite intense specialization. In football whole new teams come for punts or offense and defense. Coaches fine tune formations by putting in specialists for nickel defenses or running or passing plays. If you limit substitutions like in baseball or arrange them like in volleyball, the game becomes much less specialized or unit oriented.

Stop. Think. Reset. Play again. Stop. Think. Reset. This reset structure means that players can reflect and adapt or they can disengage. If they are struggling with the other teams offense or actions, it terminates action for a second. The reset can protect teams from roll ups and huge runs. Each play can be analyzed and adapted to. In football it evolves into elaborate chess matches where teams have studied each other’s tendencies and personnel and have time to implement them because of the stops.

The reset configuration unleashes a bonanza for TV and radio. Each reset offers time for commercials, and now the reset times are determined by commercial breaks. The commercials themselves are constructed to fit within the time of reset.

The structure points to strategies to take advantage of it. The hurry up offenses or no huddle offenses are all designed to disrupt the specialization and regrouping aspects of reset games. Oregon’s speed demon offense lives as much by its ability to disrupt and tire the other team as by its sophisticated approach to the game. But it depends upon subverting the default rhythms of the game.

Reset games encourage disruptive tactics. Because teams rely upon reset and coaching domination, teams tend to plan and invest in sets. If an opponent comes up with surprises or finds a weakness, it discombobulates the other team. Specialization, planning and commitment become a problem as the team and coaches struggle to adapt to the surprise or the suddenly exposed weakness.

Finally reset games encourage teams to get try to work on headgames and influence the other team's mind set. Because of the time to stop and think, reset games can lead to over-thinking. The stop, reset, play pattern lures players to think too much, and the cognitive pattern of thinking diffuses their attention and undermines their pattern recognition and reaction time. Given the speed and force of modern sports, players depend upon trained pattern recognition and trained reaction, if they stop to think, their game dissipates. The same thing can happen to coaches who get twisted up in trying to anticipate the next move and fall back on predictable patterns.

The reset logic highlights how football is just a game with invented rules. We need to remember that despite our penchant to saturate life with sports metaphors, life does not offer instant resets. Life does not stop time and permit substitutions. Life is not football and we should not forget that.