Thursday, July 31, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume Two, Second Installment

The concluding installment of Friday Afternoon Quarterback (2003)

Part Three:
The Tweener Zone, the Blue Zone, and the Value of “Hidden Points”

It’s a silent, subtle but oh-so-important dimension of football: no, not whether you score touchdowns in the red zone—that’s not very subtle. No, in addition to everything that’s been said and analyzed up to this point, there’s yet another separate dimension of football that creeps up on people—and on teams and coaches: it is not whether you get 7 or 3, but whether you get 3 or 0. Because college football is so wacky, so crazy, so unpredictable, so fragile, so volatile, any three-point difference you can get, any extra field goal you can manage, is a huge bonus. Yes, when offensive heavyweights play, the value of a field goal gets diminished, but when you consider how old-timey this past year was, with an old-fashioned Ohio State team succeeding with a 1960s football ethos, it makes you stop and reconsider the value of a field goal. Therefore, it’s not just what you do in the red zone as an offense (or defense), it’s what you manage to do in the area of the field in your opponent’s territory, but not yet in traditional scoring range: midfield to the 35-yard line.

Many times, football analysts will talk about how offenses move the ball well between the 20s, but then can’t function at the extreme ends of the field. That’s quite true, and quite appropriate as a point of analysis. But just as important is the need for an offense, after gradually moving the ball down the field, or perhaps after getting a turnover around midfield, to get that one… more… crucial… first… down… with extra effort… against… a tough defense that… digs in with… a new sense of urgency. When you’re between midfield and the opponent’s 35, you’re almost always in a situation where one first down will put you in field goal range. If you have the ball between midfield and your opponent’s 46, a first down at the 39-35 yard lines won’t automatically result in a field goal chance. But the point remains that, if you have a first down at the opponent’s 45 or closer, a first down—and the 10-plus yards that come with it—will put you in field goal range.

Therefore, there needs to be a newfound emphasis for this part of the field. It would be hokey (not“Hokie;” hokey!…) to apply another color to this name, so let’s just name it for what it really is: the“tweener zone.” It’s not an area inside a yard line, but an area between two yard lines, the 50 and the opponent’s 35. The “tweener” label isn’t some arbitrary label, and it might not sound cool or hip, but it directly describes the area of the field in question. It is an in-between area where you have really good field position, but just barely out of scoring position. A readily available and entirely reasonable parallel can be made with hockey, where the neutral zone, particularly on your opponent’s side of the ice, is just out of what would be referred to as normal scoring range. The biggest blast from a defenseman that can have a reasonable chance of beating a quality goaltender comes from just inside the opponent’s own zone, and NOT from the neutral zone. In football, the 35-yard line is a reasonable line of demarcation between what is commonly accepted as scoring territory, and what is commonly considered to be punting territory. It truly is an ambiguous, in-between area on the football field that creates some agonizing dilemmas for coaches, especially when the ball is near the opponent’s edge of the tweener zone, around the 38- or 37-yard line. Those coaching decisions are tough. Creating this term—the tweener zone—and ultimately injecting it into the world of mainstream college football analysis would serve the sport well (and would also serve the world of pro football well, while we’re at it), because it would open up so many new avenues for both understanding the game (as a coach or player) and for keeping detailed statistics (for fans and journalists). The football industry as we know it would be greatly enhanced and informed by using tweener zone stat-keeping.

You want to know how important the tweener zone is, or at least how important it can be at a time when college football seems to be a defense-oriented sport? Look at the Michigan-Ohio State game from the 2002 season.

In the second half, Michigan had at least two drives end in the tweener zone, with a third drive ending just a yard past it at the Ohio State 34. In a five-point game (14-9), two field goals on the failed “tweener zone possessions” would have made the difference for Michigan. As for Ohio State, the Buckeyes and Jim Tressel faced a wrenching decision when, with stud placekicker Mike Nugent available in a game led 9-7 by Michigan, the Bucks had a fourth down situation(needing more than four yards) at the Michigan 36, right at the end of the tweener zone. When Tressel made the decision to punt—I’ll offer no comments on the decision, right or wrong—it simply illustrated how the edge of the tweener zone is the focal point for a lot of key strategic decisions that are so immensely important in a football game.

The other bowl games from 2002 (or New Year’s Day of 2003) continued to demonstrate the importance of the tweener zone. In the first half of the Holiday Bowl, Arizona State had the ball in Kansas State territory EIGHT TIMES, meaning that they had the ball in the tweener zone on at least six occasions (the Sun Devils got at least one turnover inside the KSU 35, so that accounted for one of their eight possessions in Wildcat territory). On at least two or maybe even three occasions, the Devils had a drive start around the Kansas State 47-yard line, between midfield and the KSU 45. Just one 15-yard pass from Andrew Walter would have gotten the Devils into field goal range; yet, the Kansas State defense was able to stand tall and force an ASU punt. Instead of racking up a big number in the 30s, the Sun Devils were only able to tally 20 points off those eight possessions in KSU territory, and that inability to get points off drives—and even to accumulate field goals—cost them in a game ultimately decided by seven points. If those three drive starts within the tweener zone had all been converted into field goals, the Devils would have won by two on the strength of nine added points.

The tweener zone. It’s not a sexy name, and it doesn’t refer to one of the sport’s flashier elements, but it’s damn important, and it should become a regular part of our national American football vocabulary… and oh-by-the-way, it should also provide new stat-keeping outlets for team managers and for websites like CFN. And if we want to break down statistics in the tweener zone, isolating the area from midfield to an opponent’s 35, we should also want to isolate the area between the tweener zone and the long-established red zone, this area being between an opponent’s 35- and 20-yard lines.

Since “tweener zone” is a somewhat quirky name, this other area between the 35 and 20 should be labeled with the primary color that is most commonly paired or associated with red: blue. Yes, let’s call the area between an opponent’s 35 and 20 the “blue zone.” It’s simple, recognizable and consistent with the red zone. In tandem with the tweener zone, the significance of the blue zone is that it opens up a discussion of what should and shouldn’t be expected when it comes to scoring in an opponent’s end of the field. By providing two extra categories for tracking scoring percentages or point totals in an opponent’s end of the field, the blue zone and tweener zone can enable both coaches and journalists to break down football in smaller, more specific ways, and to identify—for their own separate purposes (for the coaches, winning games; for all journalists, providing better, more nuanced analysis)—difference-making elements of football in the 21st Century. Here is a basic look at how each of the three zones in an opponent’s end of the field can guide the strategy and play-calling of coaches… and also, the extent to which they try to recruit top-flight placekickers:

In the red zone, our only currently-established “zone,” it’s obvious that you have to come away with touchdowns a majority of the time. When you get close to the end zone, you have to punch it in. Driving the ball down to the five-yard line is a sign of excellence, but without those final five yards, excellence becomes relative and ultimately insufficient to win big ballgames against elite teams. Not scoring touchdowns in the red zone gives opposing defenses the confidence to force you to dink and dunk the ball down the field, only to bog down inside the 20. When you’re playing high-powered offenses, your failure to make a time-consuming drive end in a red zone touchdown is devastating. While you take seven minutes off the clock for a 24-yard field goal, your opponent drives 80 yards in four plays and one minute, and your momentum is gone. The other reason why red zone touchdowns are so important—and so telling—in the course of a game is that the great teams, even with the limited space (and thereby, play-calling options) offered by the red zone, can still manage to either overpower, outrun or out-think opponents to get seven points instead of three. Being able to have the dominant running game, or the superior play-action passing game involving a stud tight end (Miami with Kellen Winslow, Jr. comes to mind here), takes a team to a higher level. In the red zone, it’s all about touchdowns. In the blue zone, the key (at least in the first 40 minutes of a game, or before the time left in a game forces you to go for touchdowns or first downs, no matter what) is that you come away with three points, at least from the 20- to 27-yard lines.

Whereas the red zone puts a premium on getting touchdowns that are anything but guaranteed(while field goals are taken for granted), the blue zone puts a premium on making sure you get three points.It goes without saying that you should get at least three points in the red zone. The importance of the blue zone, then, is that it puts a considerable amount of focus and importance on being able to walk away with a field goal from this area of the field, which involves moderate-to-long field goal distances. When the line of scrimmage is from the opponent’s 20 to 27, a resulting field goal will be from 37-44 yards in length. At the college level, any field goal below a distance in the mid-to-upper 40s is a field goal that simply has to be made a very high percentage of the time. When you get stopped from the 20 to the 27, you have to come away with three. The blue zone ultimately elevates standards for placekickers by including a portion of the field outside of the red zone as “automatic field goal territory.”

Then, when the issue is the 28- to 35-yard lines, the blue zone maintains a focus on placekicking and the value of field goals. The use of the category of the blue zone places a point of emphasis on the need for high-level kickers to make a fair share of field goals from the mid/upper 40s (a kick with the line of scrimmage being the 28 will be a 45-yard field goal) to the low 50s (a kick with the line of scrimmage at the edge of the blue zone, the 35, will result in a 52-yard attempt). The other particularly important element of the blue zone, however, once you get past talking about the level of certainty pertaining to field goals of certain distances, is that the blue zone offers more room and space in which to operate, compared to the red zone. The significance of this reality, relative to both the play-calling and strategy of coaches along with the stat-keeping and analysis of the college football media industry, is that all members of the larger football community can begin to chart not just touchdown and field goal percentages, but trends in terms of where and how touchdowns are scored.

An explanation is needed. Because of the difficulty of scoring touchdowns in the red zone, given the lack of space in which to operate, coaches and journalists might both be quite interested in finding out whether it’s better to try and score touchdowns directly from the blue zone, or to simply get one or two more first downs and try to pound out a touchdown the old-fashioned way, from the red zone. The specific statistical charting and record-keeping that can emerge from the use of a blue zone (and a tweener zone, for that matter) is this: did a touchdown from the blue zone involve penetration into the red zone, or did the scoring play take place directly from the blue (or tweener) zone?

Do you see where this discussion is going? Let’s provide a concrete example. A team reaches the blue zone five times in the course of a football game. On three occasions, these drives into the blue zone produced touchdowns, and on two other occasions, the blue zone drives produced field goals. More specifically, two of the three blue zone drives scored touchdowns without having a scrimmage play inside the red zone. In other words, two blue zone drives had touchdown-scoring plays ranging from 20 to 35 yards, the area of the blue zone. Only on one of the three blue zone drives did the offense penetrate the red zone, have a scrimmage play originate within the red zone, and ultimately score a touchdown. Then, of the two field goal drives that entered the blue zone, one of the drives went on to penetrate the red zone before stalling, while the other drive stalled in the blue zone but still produced a field goal. For that game, then, this team’s scoring percentage in terms of blue zone production would be prettygood—five scores out of five trips, with a majority of the scores being touchdowns. However, the same team’s red zone record—two trips, with just one touchdown—would not be as good.

Finally and perhaps most importantly from a coaching standpoint, the fact that the team got two of its three touchdowns on scoring plays ranging from 20 to 35 yards would indicate that, for one thing, it is strategically smart for that team’s offense to try to score with big-hitting plays, and for coordinators to be accordingly aggressive in the blue and tweener zones. Secondly, such trends would reinforce the need for that offense to improve its red zone offense, and to specifically toughen up in the trenches and get better tight-end production. See what a use of zones opens up for both coaching and journalism? Oh by gosh by golly, the flood of strategic and analytical considerations that will emerge from a three-zone system—red zone, blue zone, tweener zone—will swamp the college football industry (and even the pros, if they’re inclined to think such categorization will improve results).

To add one additional word about the tweener zone, one must realize the value of “hidden points” as opposed to “locked-in” or “must-have” points. The discussion of the blue zone emphasized the need for kickers to hit field goals from 37 to 44 yards on virtually every occasion, and to hit a majority of kicks from 45 to 52 yards. That kind of a focus on placekicking makes the blue zone an area that expects “locked-in” or “must-have” points from placekickers. It expects field goal kickers to have consistently high rates of productivity and effectiveness on field goals in the upper 30s to the mid and upper 40s, not just on chip shots of 35 yards and under that originate from the red zone. The blue zone ultimately ups the ante for kickers. The importance of the tweener zone, then, is that it places an emphasis on being able to steal points, or get hidden points, just the same way as special teams return yardage, on punts or kickoffs, represents “hidden yardage.”

If you have a really great kicker, you can gain a huge edge in college football. Just look at Iowa and Ohio State, who had two phenomenal placekickers in Nate Kaeding and Mike Nugent. Since those teams played a number of close games, the need for their kickers to ring up three points at every step along the way was absolutely essential. A national title wouldn’t have come to Columbus, and a BCS bid wouldn’t have come to Iowa City, without the exploits of the two star kickers on those teams. Whereas Nugent was letter perfect and had a slightly higher percentage compared to Kaeding, it is Kaeding who, for the purposes of a discussion on the tweener zone, represents the importance of hidden points.

Last year, you might recall that in Iowa’s overtime win at Penn State, the first half ended with Kaeding booming through a field goal of 55 yards—with the line of scrimmage being the Penn State 38, otherwise known as the tweener zone (see, we’re getting this discussion off the ground and pushing the use of these new terms right into the mainstream—just you watch!). Since Iowa was crushing Penn State at the time, this addition of three “little” points might not have seemed like much. But when Penn State roared back in the fourth quarter to tie the game, those three points—three hidden points—Kaeding secured for Iowa turned out to be huge. The tweener zone obviously shares with the blue zone the presence of additional room in which offenses can operate before getting to (or perhaps“instead of getting to”) the red zone. That is one source of the value of the tweener zone as a stat-keeping and trend-monitoring category. But the other main source of value for the tweener zone is that it can also monitor the amount of hidden-point field goals produced by teams, leading to not just improved play-calling for offenses in enemy territory, but to an increased emphasis from coaches on their recruiting of placekickers.

* * *
Hidden points, locked-in points, and the value of field goals all prominently enter into a larger discussion opened up and created by the use of the blue and tweener zones. Along with other strategic considerations—specifically on conversion attempts, or on 4th and 1 situations deep in the red zone that challenge coaches to decide between sure field goals and risky touchdown/first down attempts—these two new zones are part of my new approach to football as a strategist, an admittedly (gasp!) more conservative strategy that emphasizes securing and accumulating points whenever and wherever you can… with the lone exception being if you’re a pronounced underdog, a situation that demands touchdowns and rewards aggressiveness at all stages of a game.

Well, it’s taken a long time to write this. I guess Friday afternoon is over, and it’s Saturday morning… gee, time to watch the games and see these principles in action once again! Monday Morning Quarterbacks will never be the same!

Friday, July 25, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume Two, First Installment

This unpublished work was written in 2003. We start with parts 1 and 2. Part 3 to come in the second installment. I should add, in complete candor, that some of the writing here is cringe-worthy. Let that not prevent you from appreciating the wisdom of the fundamental insights that emerge in this book. -MZ

Friday Afternoon Quarterback: Re-Evaluating Fundamental Strategic Aspects of Football

By Matt Zemek

Part One:
The Significance of the 2003 Sugar Bowl and the Wisdom of Accumulating Points

Monday Morning Quarterbacking is easy. It comes with the benefit of hindsight, after the games have been played. Sure, it takes nuanced analysis and an attention to detail, but at least the events of a particular situation have already unfolded, making them easier to identify and dissect. But ah, what about Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking? This is a decidedly harder enterprise. When the sports talk show hosts conduct their Friday afternoon “gear up for the big game” shows, they toss around a lot of keys, matchups, questions, either-or scenarios, and countless other tidbits meant for pregame consumption. Some of the keys are obvious, some less obvious. Some wind up deciding the game, some don’t. Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking lacks the certainty or clarity that Monday Morning Quarterbacking has; and yet, it’s precisely the kind of thing coaches need to do when they formulate their game plan, or even before that, when they formulate and modify their coaching philosophies over the duration of their careers as football lifers.

In this offseason period between the 2002 and 2003 campaigns, a little Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking is in order. Each new season, each new narrative, each new string of 16 Saturdays (12 per team, 13 for any team who partakes in a “preseason” game or a conference title game) offers enough food for thought to give football people—coaches, journalists and fans alike—reason to modify, if not significantly alter, their approaches to the sport. I’ll acknowledge this much up front: my approach to football has been slightly changed by the 2002 season. I wonder if it changed your approach, too.With respect to play-calling and game management considerations, what is the same about football, and what is different as 2002 recedes into memory and 2003 comes a’callin’? Before the first kickoff of 2003, let’s get a head start with some Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking, or as Lee Corso of College Gameday says, “first-guessing and not second-guessing.”

* * *

If I were a coach, I would be a riverboat gambler kind of coach, a bag-of-tricks play caller, a fearless risk-taker, a go-against-the-grain kind of decision maker, a fervent believer in the power of the passing game and the hurry-up offense (not just the no-huddle). In other words, I don’t like being conservative one bit. But in the spirit of honest Friday Afternoon Quarterbacking, I must say that, going into the 2003 season, the 2002 campaign has changed my view of an important strategic component of any football game: early-game two-point conversions. I have to concede that—gasp!—I have become a convert to the more conservative position on this issue. Before the 2002 season, I was a vocal supporter of the contention that you go for two whenever you’re down by two points, and that you should always make decisions in line with the current scoreboard situation. Down 14-12 in the first quarter? Go for two. Down 21-19 early in the third quarter? Go for two—why do anything else… right? It’s so ridiculously simple—down by two, go for two; down by five, go for two; up by one, go for two. Come on—why have this discussion in the first place? But then came the 2003 Sugar Bowl between Georgia and Florida State, a game that has truly reshaped my outlook on the way coaches should approach football games through the first three quarters.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt had a pair of well-documented fiascoes in the 2001 season, a run against Auburn in the final seconds near the goal line that blew up in his face, and a decision to punton a 4th and 12 around midfield with a few minutes left against Boston College in the Music City Bowl. But in 2002, Richt was golden, and he capped off his season with one of the most subtly magnificent coaching performances you’ll see in a long, long time. The actual game between Richt’s Dawgs and (mentor) Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles was not a thrilling contest. There wasn’t a packed house in the Superdome, nor was the crowd a particularly electric one. (Yeah, the matchup wasn’t sexy, givenF lorida State’s many injuries and suspensions, but still—any pre-BCS Sugar Bowl was electric no matter what… oops! I’ve lurched into an anti-BCS riff—wrong article, wrong time… back to regular programming…) The way the game played out—a not-too-dramatic 26-13 decision in favor of Georgia—wouldn’t leave all that many commentators or scribes gushing about any strategic elements of the game. After all, Georgia was better and deeper, right? That was the long and short of it, correct? It was just a nice, solid win for a better team—nothing more, nothing less… wasn’t it? Oh, there was so much more to this superficially unremarkable game than meets the eye.

In the very early going, with the game scoreless, Georgia faced a 4th and 1 at the FSU 6. With the power running of Musa Smith, a powerful and experienced offensive line, the ability to use super scrambler D.J. Shockley at quarterback, and a load of speedy skill position players, Georgia had a team supremely well-suited to convert a 4th and 1. And with Florida State having to play with third-string quarterback Fabian Walker, one could have said—with much justification and legitimacy—that going for it inside the Noles’ 10 was worth the risk, given that FSU would have an extremely long field. Yet, Richt ultimately chose to kick the field goal and take three points. One could have reaffirmed the wisdom of going for it in this situation by saying something to the effect of this: “Hey! When you’re the superior team, you flex your muscles and use every chance to demonstrate your superiority, thereby deflating the other team! The San Francisco 49er juggernauts and dominant Dallas Cowboy teams would always go for it! That damn Steve Spurrier is an arrogant prick, but he was smart enough and had enough guts to go for it in this kind of situation! Heck, Mark Richt, your mentor Bobby Bowden would go for it here! You coward, you! Why aren’t you going for this thing? It’s the SHUGAH BOW, fuh crahn out laad! First time Jawja’s been in the Louisiana Superdome since Herschel Walker, and you’re going for a wimpy field goal inside the 10 in the first quarter? Geez… some bang for the buck…sheesh!”

But Richt resisted this easy emotional temptation and took his three points to the bank. This was part of an emergent trend that would continue to show itself throughout the game. With about 4:30 left in the third quarter and the Dawgs having just settled for a field goal and a 20-7 lead, a sack of Fabian Walker produced a fumble recovery for Georgia at the Florida State 17. At this point, both emotions and logic would think one thing: dagger! Three-possession lead (20 points instead of the two-possession lead that is 16 points). As a coach, fan or journalist—or even as a player, fer cryin’ out loud—getting a turnover in someone else’s red zone late in the third quarter of a game where you’ve slowly been expanding a modest lead cries out for a knockout punch, a decisive blow. It’s a legitimate and, moreover, accepted truism in football and all sports: when you have a chance to knock someone out, you do it—you pounce, you go for the jugular, you don’t allow the game to be decided in the fourth quarter. It’s both emotionally appealing AND logically compelling to go for a touchdown in this kind of a situation. Yet, when faced with a 4th and 1 again at the FSU 8, Richt calmly assessed the situation and sent out Billy Bennett to pop through another chip shot for a 23-7 lead. Yeah, the Dawgs must have felt frustrated to a man at this point. Yeah, the Georgia fans in the Superdome must have felt like FSU was still hanging around with a few minutes left in the third quarter (when the field goal was registered). And sure, the average college football fan watching at home must have felt cheated, to the extent that this Sugar Bowl wasn’t as explosive a game as one might have hoped. Indeed, as your ordinary Joe probably mowed down his tenth taco (or fifth piece of chicken, or fourth slab of pie, or sixth cookie) in front of the television on a long New Year’s Day, he probably cursed the lack of gutsy decisions and dramatic fourth down plays in the contest.

But you know what? After all the tumult and theshouting, Richt had made the right decision. Juggling the numbers and weighing the scoreboard-based considerations, it’s clear he did. When the Noles got a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, the fact that FSU was operating with a quarterback who was fourth on the depth chart—regular starting receiver Anquan Boldin had replaced Walker by this point in the game—made it difficult for Bobby Bowden to expect that his offense could generate two more scoring drives in the fourth quarter. This forced Bowden to make the only decision he could—an unquestionably smart decision to go for two, with the lead at 10 points, 23-13. Bowden had to try to get the lead down to one possession—eight points—at the beginning of the fourth quarter. However, the two-point conversion attempt failed. About five minutes into the fourth quarter, Georgia added yet another field goal for a 26-13 lead.

The interesting thing about this field goal was that it came off a two-yard running play on 3rd and 8 from the FSU 20. Before an earlier field goal—a kick that did not take place on 4th and 1—Richt had also called for a running play on third down. Viewed in isolation, those run calls on third and long in scoring territory were stupid, but when viewed within the context of the entire game, those decisions by Richt become more understandable and acceptable because they were consistent parts of an overall game plan from Richt that clearly came into focus. One can criticize certain decisions and even whole philosophies; however, you have to give coaches their due, right or wrong, when they display a reasoned and authentic consistency in their play-calling and decision-making throughout the course of an entire game. Richt was nothing if not consistent with his strategic decisions in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Seeing FSU labor without a lot of its big-name skill-position players, Richt made a concerted effort to drain clock, secure and accumulate points whenever and wherever possible, and amount a slow, steady stack of scores that represented a Chinese Water Torture method of execution for the Seminoles.

Oh, sure, Richt could have gone for it on each of those 4th and 1 plays inside the FSU 10. And yeah, Richt could have called pass plays on two other forays deep into Seminole territory. But ya know what? If Richt had gone for it on those two previously mentioned occasions and failed, Georgia would have carried a mere seven-point lead (20-13 instead of 26-13) into the final minutes against an FSU team that, for all of its offensive limitations and weaknesses, had unmistakable big-play capability. And if Richt had called pass plays instead of runs on those other two aforementioned third downs, FSU might have had an additional 70 seconds to work with, down by just seven points in the late going. Richt’s plan worked to perfection. It wasn’t sexy, but it was overwhelmingly effective and successful. And in the end, coaches are paid to win games by doing boring but shrewd things such as that. Some situations will inevitably call for a riverboat gambler, but coaches also need to bite the bullet, swallow a bitter pill, and think in terms of 60 minutes, beyond immediate situations in isolation. Mark Richt did that in the 2003 Sugar Bowl, and the set of decisions he made was a central reason why a game that, on the surface, seemed deceptively uneventful was actually one of the best and most impressive coaching clinics I’ve seen in a very long time.

Part Two:
Mapping out Strategies for Conversions, Field Goals, and Fourth-Down Gambles

So I’ll come right out and say it: I am now a believer in accumulating points for the first two and a half or three quarters. I used to be a two-point conversion advocate regardless of the stage of the game, but now I believe in kicking more extra points. By extension, I also am now more supportive of a strategic approach that kicks more field goals and eschews more fourth-and-short situations. Points add up, and there’s no worse feeling as a coach than entering the fourth quarter—or worse, the middle or end of the fourth quarter—only to realize that the field goal you passed up in favor of a failed fourth down gamble is the difference between a one-possession lead (six points) and a two-possession lead (the nine-point deficit you’re currently staring in the face). Let’s go through some time-and-score situations outside the fourth quarter (let’s say, anytime in the first 40 minutes of a football game, before it gets down to the nitty-gritty), when there are legitimate decisions to make concerning two-point conversions (versus PATs) and field goals (versusf ourth downs).

First off, how about a typically tough and vexing situation relative to two-point conversions: being down by two. The issue that sneaks up on coaches who naturally and instinctively go for two when trailing by two (just like I would have done in every college football season up until now) is that if the conversion fails, you open yourself up to trailing by two possessions if the other team gets a touchdown. If you kick a PAT, you’re down by one, meaning that a touchdown will still keep you within one possession at an eight-point spread. However, if you go for two and fail, a subsequent touchdown by your opponent will put you in a nine-point hole, a two-possession deficit. Then, when you enter the fourth quarter down by this same nine-point total,you’re really going to kick yourself for not kicking a PAT back in the first or second quarter. Upon further review, it really does stand (to reason) that kicking a PAT, even down by precisely two points, is the smart coaching decision in the first 40-odd minutes of a football game.

Here’s a less appreciated but still quite relevant scoreboard consideration when it comes to going for two when down by two: a failed two-point play, coupled with a subsequent field goal, creates a five-point deficit as opposed to a four-point deficit. Given that we’re talking about the first 40 minutes of a football game, it’s entirely possible—one could even go so far as to say “normal” or even “extremely likely”—that more points, including and especially field goals, will be tallied in 20 clock minutes of a football game. Based on this reality, prudence dictates going for one. If you trail by five instead of four as a result of going for two and failing, you will be up by one point instead of two if you score a touchdown (and then think about your conversion decision). If you find yourself as a coach in a late-game situation, you’ll have to go for two with the one-point advantage. In the early or middle stages of the game, however, a coach might want to kick the PAT with a one-point lead to set up the possibility of going from a two-point spread to a nine-point (two-possession) spread. If you’re up 1, you basically face a really tough choice. If you’re up by 2, however, you have a no-brainer decision to kick the PAT, with the added bonus of having your lead at 3, where a field goal cannot beat you and can only tie you. The moral of the story is this: in the first 40 minutes, go for one when you’re down by two. The various scenarios that can unfold with one-point and two-point spreads can basically be boiled down to the following: with a PAT, you will remain down by just one possession (8 points) after an opponent’s touchdown instead of two (9 points). Secondly, if your opponent kicks a field goal, your decision to kick the PAT will enable you, with a subsequent additional touchdown, to be assured of a three-point lead, stemming from a deficit of only four after the opponent’s field goal, as opposed to having to seek another two-point conversion in order to build back a three-point advantage (stemming from a five-point deficit after the opponent’s field goal). Let’s use some simple math, okay?

These are the most important equations one has to consider when mulling over a one- or two-point conversion after atouchdown. Negative numbers refer to any deficits you face and/or create, while positive numbers represent any leads that you possess and/or increase.

(-1 + -7) = -8
(-2 + -7) = -9
(-1 + -3) = -4
(-2 + -3) = -5
(-4 + 7) = 3
(-5 + 7) = 2
(-5 + 6) = 1

Now that we’ve gone through the most excruciating situation coaches face in connection with two-point conversions, let’s go to the second-biggest scenario involving two-point tries: when you lead by one point. We’ve already touched on this, but let’s flesh it out a little more: when you’re up one, the inclination is to go up three by trying for two. But as mentioned earlier, that temptation must be balanced against the possibility of extending a two-point lead—a spread gained by kicking the PAT—and being able to extend to a nine-point, two-possession bulge. Basically, when you’re up one, you’re in the opposite position of the team that is down by two. When you’re down by two, the temptation to want to tie the game must be balanced against the worry that you might fall behind by nine points. When you’re up one, the want to go up by three points must be balanced against the desire to be able to consolidate a lead of nine points, that magical two-possession threshold. Based on this overarching reality, prudence aimed at accumulating a nine-point lead should carry just as much weight as the similar decision to want to avoid trailing by nine. Whether you’re down two or, as in this immediate discussion, up one, a recognition of the importance of a nine-point spread (whether ahead or behind) should lead a coach toward a decision to kick the PAT. Since we’ve started with the smallest possible spreads—one, two, four, five, eight and nine points—we need to go up the ladder to double-digit spreads and the two-point choices they dictate.

Having talked about the significance of a nine-point spread, let’s start with the decision faced by the coach of a team that trails by 10. Yes, the easy temptation in this situation is to want to get within one possession at eight points. And if this decision is faced midway through the third quarter, right around the 40-minute mark in the game with the home stretch not too far away, going for two might be an absolute necessity. This would be especially true if your opponent is an extremely good ball-control team that could make a two-possession lead seem like a four-possession lead.

Knowing Georgia’s ability to control the ball with its imposing line and exceptional skill people, Bobby Bowden of Florida State, with the game 45 minutes old, made the right decision to go for two when he trailed Georgia by 10 points (23-13). Any situation approaching the one faced by Bowden should require going for two. Early in the third quarter? No. Late in the third quarter against a bad ball-control team? Probably not, but with wiggle room. But late in the third against a good ball-control team? Yes—you have to try to get that lead down to one possession as soon as possible.

Getting past the boundaries involving this decision in terms of the stage of the game, let’s once again assume this decision is faced early in the game. Despite the want to get within one possession, it really does make sense to kick the PAT, boring and gutless though it might seem. Let’s not use any specific situation from the 2003 Sugar Bowl, but just consider the spreads that game acquired. Georgia had a lead go from 10 to 13 to 16 to 10 to 13. When leading by 10, a field goal extending to a 13-point spread is significant for the following reason: a team trailing by 13 will not go for two after scoring the first of the two touchdowns it needs. No team, down by 7 after scoring a TD, will go for two to get the lead down to five. The team will kick the PAT and go down by 6, the smart decision not only because it is a low-risk decision, but also because it would stand to win outright with a touchdown and extra point. It wouldn’t aim to get a minimal reward in exchange for a very big risk. But then, with the lead at six after the trailing team’s touchdown, a mere field goal can extend to a… guess what, everybody? Yup—a NINE… POINT… LEAD, the magic margin.

Why is this discussion so significant in relationship to teams that trail by 10? Three points: 1) You get put in a box strategically when a 10-point deficit gets extended to 13. You’re basically forced to go for one and keep the other team off the scoreboard; if you give up a subsequent field goal, you’ll trail by nine.2) If you kick the PAT down 10 and get the lead to nine, a field goal by your opponent would put you down 12, meaning that your next touchdown would cut the lead to 5, not 6, meaning that your opponent’s next field goal would put them up only by 8, and not 9. If coaching is all about thinking a few moves and sequences ahead (and it most certainly is, by golly!), then kicking PATs will pay dividends later on. 3) If you settle for the one-point conversion and go down 9 points, a touchdown by your opponent would keep you within two possessions (at 16 points) as opposed to three possessions (a 17-point deficit, which marks the three-possession threshold just as nine points marks the two-possession threshold).

In the end, what I’ve learned by studying the 2003 Sugar Bowl and revisiting the strategic considerations of two-point conversion attempts in the first 40 minutes of a game is that each individual point matters a great deal. Yes, it has tremendous value to go from a 13-point deficit to an 11-point deficit with a two-point try, but what if you fail on that two-point try and see your opponentkick field goals (as in Georgia’s case against FSU) to build a 16-point lead? Instead of having kicked the PAT to put one precious point on your side of the ledger, creating a 15-point deficit in the process, your desire to go for two has put you down by 16 points. This means you have to try for two TWICE, instead of just once. Considering how difficult it is to convert a one-shot deal from the three-yard line, you don’t want to enter the fourth quarter needing a maximum of two-point plays.

Consider this from the Super Bowl between Oakland and Tampa Bay: if the Raiders had kicked the PAT after all three of their late-third quarter/early-fourth quarter touchdowns, what was a 34-21 deficit (13-point spread) could have been a 34-24 deficit (a spread of 10). That was an obviously huge difference, something that—when the Raiders penetrated the midfield area with about two and a half minutes left in the game—could have enabled the Raiders to kick a quick field goal, go down seven, and possibly have enough time to get the ball back from the Buccaneers the old-fashioned way: by using timeouts. Every point is so precious in the 9- to 17-point range. Seeking two-point jumps isn’t worth sacrificing the value of a sure individual point.

17 or 16? The difference between two and three possessions. 16 or 15? The difference between needing two two-point conversions and just one, a big difference when contemplating the odds of coming back. 15 or 14? The difference between needing a two-pointer and not needing any. Just as huge as the previous scenario, only with the elimination of any two-point burden whatsoever! 14 or 13? If you give up a field goal, you’re down 17 (three possessions) or 16 (two). 13 or 12? If you score seven points and then giveup three, you’ll either be down 9 (two possessions) or by 8 (one possession). 12 or 11? If you allow a field goal, you’re either down 15 or 14. If you score a field goal, you’re either down 9 or 8. Very big distinctions. 11 or 10? Either you need a field goal, touchdown and two-pointer, or you just need a field goal and TD. Also, an allowed field goal is the difference between a 14-point deficit and a 13-point deficit. 10 or 9? If you give up a TD, you’re down either 17 or 16; if you allow a FG, you’re down 13 or 12. If you score a TD, you’re down 3 or 2. If you get a FG, you’re down 7 or 6. Just notice how all of these spreads and potential scenarios involve big differences based on single points, not just the more obvious shifts between 16 and 14, 13 and 11, and between 10 and 8. Single points matter. That’s the bottom line when it comes to two-point conversions and PATs. Kicking is underrated.

* * *

Speaking of how kicking is underrated, it’s time to shift to a separate category of strategy, the previously mentioned set of all decisions that concern kicking field goals versus going for either a touchdown on 4th and goal, or a 4th-and-short first down deep in the red zone. With two-point conversions balanced against PATs, you have a set of decisions that affect a spread by either one or two points, depending on whether you go for two in the first place, and whether or not you make the two-point try. But within the larger issue of field goals versus touchdowns, (let’s assume seven points and not put two-pointers into this particular discussion), you have a set of decisions that affect a spread from 4-7 points—four if you compare a field goal’s value to a touchdown’s value, seven if you compare a total failure (on either a kick or a 4th down attempt for a touchdown) to a touchdown’s value. This makes field goal/touchdown decisions in the first 40 minutes of a game even weightier than PAT/two-point decisions. Conversion-related decisions are decidedly more tricky issues, but field goal/touchdown decisions are decidedly more important, since the point swings and momentum shifts that arise from these decisions (and their level of success, particularly with respect to 4th down conversions) are larger and more pronounced. With field goal-or-touchdown decisions in the first 40 minutes of a game, coaches need to make their decisions not just as a result of time-and-score considerations, which dominate when you look at conversion-related choices. No, when it comes to kicking field goals or going for it deep in the red zone (or even on the goal line), a coach needs to know his team’s overall strength, as well as the quality and compatibility of his personnel on a given side of the ball within a matchup-specific context. The more of a dominant O-line you have, the more a coach can justify a decision to go for it on 4th and short near the goal line or in the red zone. The weaker your O-line is, the more a coach should lean toward a field goal. The more of a running quarterback you have, the more you can or should consider going for it; but if your quarterback is a slow dropback-pass kind of signal caller, you—as a coach—ought to lean toward three points.

And the list goes on and on: Fast or slow running backs are a determinant. The quality and ability of your tight end, as both a blocker and receiver, is a big factor. The sequence of plays that lead up to the 4th and 1 is important—if you just did pass on third down, your opponent’s defense will be more geared toward stuffing the run and thereby has a better chance of bottling up your ground game. If you ran on third down, the defense might be a little more ready for a play fake on fourth down, giving you a better chance of being able to cram a run up the middle for a first down (if that is your personality as an offense, or at least as a rushing attack). The former scenario would lend itself more toward a field goal, while the latter scenario would make a decision to go for it a little more understandable. And then, if your defense is good at stopping quick-hitting plays, either run or pass, you can feel more comfortable and confident in going for the first down, because you know that if you fail, your defense will be able to turn the lack of room faced by your opponent’s offense—backed up against its own goal line—to its advantage. The subsequent stop deep in your opponent’s territory should give you a drive start on the edge of field goal range, if not better. Going for it is worth the risk if you can stop fullback plunges and quick slants on defense. But if not, you should probably kick a field goal.

In the end, however, the ultimate consideration a coach has to make when faced with a 4th and 1 on (let’s say) the opponent’s 5-yard line in the early stages of a game can be framed in this multiple-choice question: is your team better than your opponent, are you an equal match, or are you an underdog? Underdogs have to go for touchdowns—there’s no question about it, unless a team can go from a one-possession lead to a two-possession lead. Teams in evenly-matched games should lean toward the field goal, given the lack of a guarantee of future points. And when your team is clearly superior for whatever reason, you definitely lock up the three points and put them on your side of the ledger.

With respect to the 2003 Sugar Bowl, the conscious decision made by Mark Richt was to accumulate field goals based not on the relative strength of his offensive line or skill people, or even of his defense—both were strong, and both fit the above mentioned criteria for making a justified decision to go for first downs or touchdowns in 4th-and-short situations. No, what Richt chose to do was to kick field goals because he knew his team was better, and would prove to be better over the long haul. In other words, it was not necessary for Richt to take gambles when he knew his team could outlast a depleted and undermanned FSU team in a 60-minute battle. Why fritter away a likely victory by taking unneeded chances and throwing away easy points in the form of Billy Bennett chip shots? That was Richt’s plan, and it worked beautifully, just the way he intended, in fact. The genius of Richt in the Sugar Bowl was that he thought long-term—not even one or two sequences ahead, but he thought about the entirety of the game, and brought a well-integrated approach to the entire contest. Having both smarts and philosophical consistency make for the ideal coach; having at least one of the two is an absolute must, but the great ones—who don’t just survive but thrive—combine intelligence with a constancy that inspires the best in players. With Richt in the Sugar Bowl, the incremental approach to scoring points had to fire up his linemen and his entire defense, getting all his players to buy into a system of discipline and toughness.

With a guy like Steve Spurrier, the consistency of Spurrier’s aggressiveness brought out a maximum of intensity (and usually, production) from quarterbacks and wide receivers who knew going into games that they would be looked upon to make big-time plays in big situations. Coaching consistency can serve as a source of motivation unto itself. The fact that he surely and obviously realized the power of that reality was part of the mastery of Reverend Coach Mark Richt (as they call him in Athens), whose Sugar Bowl strategy was divine, and which summoned his Dawgs to a lofty, heavenly perch in the SEC and national rankings throughout the 2002 season. You can see from these many examples how many factors a coach has to think through when he is faced with a “field goal or touchdown” decision. All of the factors that have been talked about up to this point are—perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not (it depends on what kind of football philosophy you, the reader, apply to the sport)—factors largely if not totally unrelated to time-and-score factors. The amount of non-scoreboard details that play into field goal/touchdown decisions is staggering, and they prove just how significant these particular kinds of decisions are, even more important than PAT/two-point choices that coaches have to make.

But let’s be honest about something here: the trajectory of this discussion should not be interpreted to mean that time-and-score issues have zero relevance or importance in shaping field goal-or-touchdown decisions. They have a heckuva lotta importance, and there’s a basic way in which to apply them to field goal/touchdown decisions: reach the magic margins or “thresholds.”

The biggest and most obvious starting point for thisdiscussion is to go to what I like to call the“possession thresholds” previously referred to in the discussion about PATs and two-point conversion attempts. These thresholds between a one- and two-possession lead (8 and 9 points) or a two- and three-possession lead (16 and 17 points) form the core of a proper strategic approach to field goal/touchdown decisions. A simpler way to express that idea is this: if you can get to these thresholds, even if it means kicking a rinky-dink 17.5-yard field goal from your opponent’s one-inch line, YOU DO IT, BY CRACKY! Members of the United States Naval Academy should be most acutely aware of this—yes, it’s time for an actual case study, a trip to the strategic football laboratory and research center.

It was the 1995 Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, the first of Navy head coach Charlie Weatherbie’s tenure in Annapolis. Navy led the game 13-7 midway through the fourth quarter. The Midshipmen had fourth down on the Army one-yard line, and Weatherbie, coaching in his first Army/Navy game and probably feeling macho, masculine, “tough,” or in some other way duty-bound to do the bold, testosterone-drenched “manly thing,” opted to go for a touchdown, rather than an easy field goal. The Middies didn’t get the touchdown. Army drove 99 yards for a touchdown in 19 plays, won the game 14-13, and saved coach Bob Sutton’s job in the process. Weatherbie was left to cry in the locker room, breaking down and sobbing in front of his team, saying that he felt responsible for losing the Navy seniors’ last football game, and a fourth straight game to Army. (This was, ironically and sadly, two years after Navy did attempt a field goal from the Army 1 in the fourth quarter, only to fail to center it--because a fullback had visions of gridiron glory and ran toward what he thought was a hole near the right-side hashmark--and ultimately miss it. The kicker who missed the kick at the end of the 1993 game, Ryan Bucchianieri, would be tragically and horribly killed in a shooting incident not too many years afterward.)

In dissecting the pure football elements of Weatherbie’s fateful decision in 1995, the lowdown is simply this: he had a chance to go from 6 to 9 points and chose not to do so. He paid a severe price. He wept. For the Ancient Romans, the motto was “Veni, vidi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.” For Charlie Weatherbie on that gray Philadelphiaday more than seven years ago, the motto was “I erred, I lost, I suffered.” Looking yet again at the 2003 Sugar Bowl to provide an additional example, Mark Richt reached the boundary of a threshold when, up 13 and facing that 4th and 1 at the Florida State 8, he chose the safe three points and went up 16. Yeah, it wasn’t 17, but it was still on that dividing line. Whereas a 13-point spread requires just two touchdowns to win, a 16-point spread requires two TDs and two 2-pointers just to tie. Richt greatly increased the burden faced by the Seminoles in their attempt to even tie the game, let alone win it. In a similar way, going from 5 to 8 points is significant, nearly as significant as going from 6 to 9, because your opponent, when trailing by eight, has to get a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to tie, instead of needing just a TD and not even a PAT to win. Just as it is a very obvious burden to have to score twice in the face of a 9-point deficit, it is also comparatively hard to get a touchdown and conversion as opposed to needing just a touchdown and nothing more. Putting two-point conversions into play gives your opponent, trailing by eight (or perhaps 16), a separate and particularly difficult additional burden. It is these thresholds that reveal these added burdens (either extra conversions for the low end of these thresholds, 8 and 16 points, or extra possessions for the high end of the thresholds, 9 and 17 points).

Based on these considerations, which focus on reaching these thresholds when ahead or erasing such thresholds when behind, here is my personal “chart” when it comes to choosing either a chip-shot field goal or a touchdown/first down attempt deep in my opponent’s red zone:

Chart When Leading in the First 40 Minutes of a Game

+1 – Touchdown/first down. The chance to get to eight points is significant, and even if you get three points, the other team will get substantially better field position after the kickoff. Plus, another field goal after a 4-point lead gets you to a 7-point advantage, NOT at the 8- or 9-point “magic margins.”

+ 2 – Field goal. Another field goal on top of this one (which produces a 5-point spread), and you’re at the 8-point margin. Plus, getting a 5-point margin forces the other team to risk going for two if they get a touchdown. A subsequent failure of your opponent’s two-point try can wind up giving you a key extra point that you can bring to the table in the fourth quarter.

+ 3 – Field goal. Add another field goal (just like the above scenario), and you’re 9 points ahead. Kicking a field goal up by three sets you up nicely for a two-possession advantage even without the benefit of a touchdown.

+ 4 – Field goal. Four to seven is a no-brainer. To get to a point where a TD cannot beat you but can only tie you is too important to ignore.

+ 5 – Field goal. One of the “magic margin makers.”

+ 6 – Field goal. Ditto.

+ 7 – Field goal. Also from one to two possessions,but if you fail on a fourth down attempt, you still know that you can’t get beaten with a TD, only tied, so there is an extra amount of legitimacy in this situation to going for it.

+ 8 – Touchdown/first down. Eight to eleven really doesn’t do much. In fact, it might lead a team to think that it won’t need a two-point try. Consider this simple scenario: you go up 11, a team gets a TD and PAT to go down by just 4. You then kick afield goal to go up 7. As a result of these events, you’re up just one possession, and your opponent,while not being able to beat you with a touchdown, does have the benefit of not needing a two-pointer just to tie you. Going for a touchdown can get you to a 15-point spread, where you not only force a team to get two touchdowns, but at least one two-point try. Definitely a place to be aggressive, much more so than up 7, because with an 8-point lead, you’re already in a spot where your opponent is in need of a conversion just to tie you.

+ 9 – Touchdown/first down. Extending from 9 to 12 doesn’t do a whole lot in relationship to possession thresholds, but a touchdown takes you to that magic 16-point spread. Already having a two-possession lead once again affords you the chance to be aggressive. This is a better touchdown situation than being up 8, and is—now that I think of it—probably THE very best time to go for a touchdown on 4th and short when leading a ballgame.

+ 10 – Either way; refer to personnel, matchups, etc. Mark Richt, as a favorite, chose the field goal, and it set him up to further extend his lead to 16 with a second field goal. On the other hand, another coach might want to go for it, try to extend from 10 to 17 with one play, and put the game out of reach by getting a three-possession bulge. Strong arguments for either side of thought. This is certainly where the other non-scoreboard factors come in.

+ 11 – Field goal. Much like going from up 4 to up 7—not being susceptible to defeat with two touchdowns is a safe place to be.

+ 12 – Field goal. You force a team to get at least one two-point conversion by extending to 15 with a field goal.

+ 13 – Field goal. You reach 16 and force a team toget two “2s.” A no-brainer.

+ 14 – Field goal. You reach 17, another magic number just like 16, only better.

+ 15 or more – Field goal. Just collect points and have them add up on your side. If your opponent makes a late comeback, you’ll be glad you “stashed points away in storage.”

Now, let’s shift to the other side of things...

Chart When Trailing in the First 40 Minutes of a Game

-1, -2 or -3: Field goal. Taking a lead or tying is pretty obvious.

-4: Field goal. If your opponent gets a touchdown,you’re down only eight, within one possession. And by kicking the field goal, you put yourself in position to go ahead with another field goal. This isa wise choice even for the midway point of thefourth quarter IF you have faith in your defense.

-5: Touchdown/first down. If you give up a field goal after failing in this situation, you’re still down just eight. And if you do get seven points (remember, you should go for a one-point PAT when up by 1), you take a two-point lead, which can serve as a springboard to a 9-point advantage.

-6: Field goal. You can get within three, where another field goal can tie. Pretty simple. You also don’t want to risk remaining down by 6, where an opponent’s field goal gets you into that 9-point hole.

-7: Touchdown/first down. If you go down by just 4, you still need a TD to go ahead. Why not try for the TD in the middle of a game?

-8: Field goal. Rather than being tempted in the first 40-odd minutes of a contest, take the three here to remove the burden of needing a two-pointer just to tie. Going down by just 5 as a result of a field goal here really improves your outlook—this is a classic case of accumulating points for the fourth quarter, when you hope that you don’t or won’t have to convert a two-point play.

-9: Field goal. Get off that 9-point, two-possession threshold… PERIOD.

-10: Field goal. Get within one possession…PERIOD.

-11: Field goal. Get within one possession, even if you’ll need a two to tie.

-12: Touchdown/first down. A field goal still leaves you down 9. A touchdown, on the other hand, puts you down just 5. A huge difference, because the difference between a 5-point spread and a 9-points pread crosses an entire “possession threshold.”

-13: Field goal. Make sure you don’t get behind by 16 with another field goal from your opponent. Getting within 10 (like the Oakland Raiders should have done in the Super Bowl) increases your fourth quarter strategic options a lot.

-14: Touchdown/first down. Down 11, you stillhave a lot of work to do. Going for a TD is worth it here.

-15: Touchdown/first down. See above—a 12-point deficit ain’t no fun, either.

-16: Field goal. Getting off the 16-point deficit removes the need for two two-pointers, and if you do give that field goal back, well, at least you’re still down just two possessions.

-17: Field goal. Get it from three possessions down to two.

-18 or more: Touchdown/first down. Too big a deficit to get just three at any point in the game, unless perhaps late in the first or early in the second quarter (you must have really gotten out of the gate slowly—geez!).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

College Football Book Archive: Volume One, Fourth Installment

Chapters 7 and 8 of The National Media and College Football

Chapter Seven: Language and the Realityof Unsaid Words

Another part of journalism that must bediscussed--and which is removed from various institutional, political and economic elements of the profession; it only focuses on the craft itself--is the use of words, of language.

At the heart of any story in any facet of journalism (even the broadcast side) are words. In tandem with pictures or by themselves, words pose powerful arguments, create vivid images, and set forth the parameters of a lively and robust discussion. Words capture the passion, pageantry, pain, and pride of the people who compete and perform every Autumnal Saturday. Words have an effect--just ask me or any other national college football journalist. The words we write on Saturday evening, Sunday morning, and Monday morning from September through early January draw responses from fans that are numerous and emotional. But beyond the raw numbers of passionate e-mails I receive, what strikes me more than anything else about the responses I get from college football fans is the fact that each reader takes my words in a particular direction.

In 2004, USC, Oklahoma and Auburn all struggled in their big rivalry games, all of which were on the road: USC at cross-town enemy UCLA, OU at Bedlam foe Oklahoma State, and Auburn at Iron Bowl archrival Alabama. After each of these games, I wrote a piece defending each of the top teams, and for the same basic reason: winning a rivalry game on the road is no small feat. Yet, after all three of these games, I got e-mails from the fans of all three teams--the Trojans, Sooners and Tigers--saying that I praised the winning team too much, and that I overlooked the other two teams when they did the same thing. Yes, I also got supportive e-mails from the fans of the winning team who thanked me for making their case (not that I'm in the business of making the case for fan bases; if I perceive a game in a certain way, I'll write what I perceive--that's what my "instant analysis" pieces are supposed to involve), but it was overwhelming--though perhaps not surprising, for all reasons stated up to this point--that so many fans in other sections of the country would invest such heated emotions and specific perceptions of language into e-mail letters about a game their team did not play.

In November, early December, and then before and after the Sugar and Orange Bowls in very early January, virtually every piece I wrote about USC, OU or Auburn generated four fundamental kinds of responses that applied fairly consistently to each of the three teams. What would apply to a USC piece would also apply to stories written about OU and Auburn. As an example, if I wrote a piece that praised USC even while noting some of the Trojans' perceived weaknesses, the four basic kinds of responses I got would be as follows: 1) USC fans thanking me for praising the team; 2) USC fans ripping me for not praising the Trojans enough, and generally being way too nitpicky in dissecting the poorer elements of their performance and overall quality; 3) OU fans ripping me for giving USC way too much credit and underselling the Sooners' close shaves; 4) Auburn fans ripping me for giving USC way too much credit and underselling the Tigers' close shaves. You can keep score pretty well: fan responses to Monday columns and instant analysis pieces offered a split verdict on the team directly involved in the game, and a unanimously negative verdict from the two other teams not involved in the game, but whose fate was affected in the BCS race by the game's outcome. Language that tried to make one basic point about one team's overall quality after the conclusion of one game was perceived in four different ways by three different fan bases. Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture?

Fans--and as someone who was a fan before I became a journalist, I can relate to this feeling--passionately hold extreme viewpoints that are favorable to their team, conference or region. One of the main jobs of any sports journalist, in college football or any other sport, is to set aside personal passions and preferences and see things for what they are, based on careful observation and cultivated experience as a journalistic practitioner. This is particularly true of a national journalist, who surveys the entirety of the sport instead of being assigned to cover one team on a regular basis.

In my own conversion from fan to journalist--or perhaps, as someone who has to juggle the two elements (for the fan in each college football writer never truly goes away)--I have had to gradually accept the centrality, primacy and necessity of being able to play defense and run the ball. As a fan, I always gravitated to the passing game and offense (and to a certain extent, I still do), but my place as a journalist has demanded, both professionally and intellectually, that I grow to the extent that my analysis can coherently and knowledgeably speak about the importance of power running, defense, special teams, field position, and various other facets of football. If my stories, particularly in the realm of game analysis, stem from one narrow perspective that views passing offense to be the only measure of football excellence, my analysis will clearly suffer, and readers will be able to see as much. It's much the same way with teams and conferences.

As a Catholic, it's always been important for me as a person to hold NotreDame's football program to high moral standards from the institutional side (as I did when I criticized the firing of Ty Willingham in early December of last year). But when I entered the hot seat that comes with being a national college football writer, my disapproval of the Irish's institutional maneuvers over the past 15 years has had to be pushed aside whenever I've had to analyze a game involving Notre Dame. I could not allow my strong disagreementswith the larger entity of Notre Dame Football to interfere with my analysis of the smaller realm of the Notre Dame football team on Saturdays. Journalists are passionate fans and emotional human persons just like everyone else, but when moments of truth arrive--the kinds of situations that demand objectivity and a clear segmentation between personal hopes and professional responsibility to one's editor, publisher and readership--the objective detatchment and neutral professionalism have to kick in. I'd like to think, then, that in each and every piece I write, I try and assess a team for what it is, and a game for what it was--nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. This is what makes it hard for me, as anational journalist, to take criticism when OU and Auburn fans light into me for a measured and responsible piece in which I praised USC.

It's not that I can't take the criticism myself, as a person--that's not the issue. What hurts me is the fact that as a journalist, my professional identity and personal integrity are assailed, and almost automatically so, for the ways in which I use the English language. What I write and how I write--both the content and methods that go into my stories--come under fire on many occasions for the simple fact that I'm a national journalist at a time when the profession of journalism is viscerally hated, given the poor performance of journalists in the political, military and economic arenas. I suffer in the college football world for journalistic sins in other facets of life that have caused the reputation of the business to sink like a rock throughout America. So how can I write some meaningful words about the meanings of the words I regularly write each Saturday evening and Monday morning?

Pushing aside any inherent feelings about the profession of journalism--which we all know to be poorly practiced on many levels--college football fans need to realize one very simple thing about the workings of college football journalism that mirrors the world of hard news journalism: good or bad, positive or negative, any journalist can only write about one subject at a time... even in a notes column. One thing that affects national dialogue about politics and morality in America is also true in the world of college football: points made about one topic are easily and routinely perceived as being commentaries about other issues, groups and people.

In national political discussions (this particularly applies a lot to matters of race and religion), making a comment about one group of people is almost automatically seen as being a triple commentary on that group's allies and adversaries. If you say something about secular liberal groups, a great many readers will immediately fill in the blanks and presume that you hold a corresponding view of (especially) Christian conservatives and (less certainly, but still probably) progressive Christians. Similarly, in college football--at least with respect to the 2004 season--a comment about USC was immediately perceived as being a triple commentary on Oklahoma and Auburn as well. This dynamic, which especially applies to the journalistic realms of editorial commentary and news analysis (not straight reportage), has to stop, and pretty quickly.

It's really quite simple: when I write about a game USC played, any comments about USC should be construed as applying only to USC. The same principle should apply to anything I write about OU or Auburn. In future seasons, anything I write about any of the three or four teams who compete for the BCS title game in late November and early December should not be viewed as triple or quadruple commentaries on the other teams involved. Languages, and the words within them, can only describe multiple subjects if the user of the language wants them to. If I want to make one comment on USC, OU and Auburn at the same time, I will arrange my words and phrasings to achieve that purpose. On a very similar note, if I want to lump together criticism of one team with praise of another team, I'll also take care to do just that.

The Cal-Texas Rose Bowl ruckus was a perfect example of how readers in Austin perceived sympathetic comments toward Cal, or comments critical of the BCS system, to be anti-Texas comments. Insteadof being allowed to be wrong, or being allowed to let my BCS bashing be just that--BCS bashing, and not pro-Cal or anti-Texas commentary--the folks who bled Burnt Orange read a whole number of meanings into my pieces that just weren't there. Those meanings would have been expressed had I chosen to say as much. My words could only mean one thing for certain, but Texas fans insisted that my words meant other things.

If I said that Cal coach Jeff Tedford showed admirable restraint for not politicking or running up the score (against Southern Miss), Texas fans thought that I disapproved of Mack Brown's politicking. If I said that the BCS system was wrong for involving politics to an unseemly extent, Texas fans thought that I disapproved of Mack Brown's politicking. Yet, I never said I disapproved of Mack Brown's politicking. Had I been in hisposition, I'd probably lobby my fellow coaches as well, given that Texas had indeed received the short end of the BCS stick in previous seasons. Despite the fact that in a late-season Tuesday Question, I ultimately said that Texas deserved the Rose Bowl more than Cal, the fact that I excoriated the BCS for undermining the Big Ten-Pac-10 Rose Bowl tradition was a clear sign, in the eyes of Longhorns fans, that I was set against Texas's place in Pasadena.... and against Mack Brown's politicking. You can see where this is going, don't you? If college football fans can't allow journalists to be wrong, and can't treat comments merely for what they are on the immediate subjects at hand, national college football writers such as myself will have to dumb down our writing. And as a proud print journalist, I can say that dumbed-down language is for broadcasters. Sportswriters paint pictures with words, conveying the full meaning of a story beyond the immediate images that emerge in a game. Being able to tell the "back-story," and tell it with color, depth of detail, and a literary flourish, brings college football--not to mention any other human endeavor--to fuller and richer light. The reader of the words in a print story is enriched far beyond the level that a TV or radio broadcast can provide. Television has the power of the picture, and radio has the power of the immediate emotional voice responding to events as they happen. Print journalism's power, however, lies in the written word, and if readers can't allow journalists to mean what they say and say what they mean--reading nonexistent meanings into the words that flow from writers' keyboards--print journalism will lose its reason for existing.

A note about is merited at this particular point. The enduring appeal of CFN, and the biggest, most impressive element of its legitimate journalistic quality under editor and publisher Pete Fiutak, is that all CFN editorial content--from Fiutak himself along with the stable of writers under his direction (including me)--is that we respect the intelligence of our fans. We at CFN--and I can honestly say this about all writers at the website--do everything in our power to avoid writing basic, boring, predictable, cookie-cutter articles about everything in college football. Every CFN story is written with passion, and has a literary voice that sounds like a knowledgeable fan, only with the requisite dimensions of journalistic polish and linguistic flair. We don't offer tired, old recaps of events, because we presume you saw them (because, after all, we know that you're a huge college football fan just as we are). We don't repeat or adhere to conventional wisdom (a huge disease infecting national political journalism in America). We avoid easy, tidy conclusions. We offer in-depth explanations that go far beneath the surface of events and realities affecting college football.

Unlike many pollsters in both the writers' and coaches' polls, we have a culture of editorial independence and freedom at CFN that creates a very open-minded collection of writers who are willing to change their views when they see compelling reasons to do so. CFN writers don't put teams in certain poll positions at the start of the season and automatically keep them there. We're always reassessing and reevaluating the evidence in front of us. Why? Because we have to. We can only comment on the next game, subject or debate that is in front of us--each Saturday, each week, each season. College football, like anything else in life, is damn complicated, and the process of analyzing the games and politics that are part of the sport is therefore a very complex exercise. Because of the confusing and perplexing nature of college football, any piece of news analysis or editorial commentary has to be viewed simply for what its words suggest, and nothing else. If I make a comment about one subject, that comment should be interpreted in light of that one subject. If I make a comment about two or three topics, that comment should be viewed with respect to the two or three topics mentioned, and not a fourth or fifth issue. In conclusion, words about one subject are words that are absent with respect to other topics. The presence of words in one area of discussion necessarily creates the absence of words in other realms of debate. It is only when I, the writer, speak about those other topics--filling in words where they previously didn't exist--that the reader can then presume that I have an opinion about those topics. Therefore, unless or until I specifically address a given topic, one should see the lack of words and not put anynew ones into my mouth. They're not my words--or the words of any other national college football journalist--until they get published... or, perhaps, until the reader asks a polite question in search of that opinion. Making conclusions about unaddressed topics is something that has to stop. Comments about individual topics have to be allowed to stand on their own, without any pre-judgments about how those comments might affect other opinions on other subjects.

Chapter Eight: Football and The Vision of Something Better: How to Create Objective Standards for College Football Analysis

Until this point, we've talked almost exclusively about journalism--partly from the college football side and partly from the hard-news side that deals with politics, the military, the economy, and other spheres of life outside the sports world. But now, as this book winds its way toward a conclusion, it's high time to talk about football within a journalistic context. In order for me and other national journalists to better cover college football, and for readers to better understand college football, we need to establish and develop some new standards we can use to analyze college football games, and then college football seasons.

It's bad enough that college football journalism is an opinion-dominated profession, but it's even worse that the community of college football journalists--broadcasters and writers alike--has not had an extended, detailed and meaningfulconversation about football analysis, and more specifically, about the components and standards that are used to determine various levels of football excellence. Why do we need to have this discussion? First, let's consider the art--not the science, but the art--of game analysis. If you ever doubted the ability of statistics to grossly deceive you before this 2004 college football season, those doubts should no longer exist. A number of games played this past Autumn represented classic examples of the lies, damn lies and statistics that get in the way of clear-headed, objective football analysis. As one of my Monday Morning Quarterback columns indicated, one day from the season just past (October 9, 2004) offered a day with three such number-bending, brain-busting games that defied easy categorizations or easy answers:

Boy, this weekend was the pigskin laboratory that makes college football sucha fun--yet inexact--sport to dissect. In the NFL, the talent levels are so even, the offensive styles so homogenized, the business so copycat-driven, that a lot of the "standard" football rules apply: conventional wisdom holds in a lot of ways at the NFL level. But in college football, it's a different world. The disparities in talent, styles, team personalities, conferences, media exposure--in short, everything--make this sport much, much harder to judge with a uniform set of standards. Let's lock the doors, sit around a table, and talk some football, because there's a lot of explaining to do.

Minnesota outplayed Michigan Saturday. That was the conclusion reached by thiswriter when the game ended. Had I been able to read a stat sheet, the conclusion might have been different. But you know the old line, don't you? There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Okay, so Michigan had more yards--it's been a point of religion for Wolverine backers to use Michigan's one-yard rushing advantage as a reason why they outplayed the Gophers. One yard equals superiority! Imagine that! Aha, but what about meaningful yards? Michigan's huge problem was that it moved the ball between the 30s, but didn't do a consistent job in scoring territory. Considering that Michigan has the superior beef up front, should it be considered that stalled drives equate to Wolverine control of the balance of play? That's just one of several questions one ought to ask when considering who outplayed whom in this ballgame.

Many other folks who bleed Maize and Blue brought up the point that the Wolverines' huge edge in time of possession clearly proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Lloyd Carr's crew dominated Minnesota. This brings up a five-alarm red-alert point: time of possession is THE most overrated stat in college football, hands down. In the even-steven world of the NFL, where offenses and personnel are so similar, time of possession matters a lot more than in NCAA Land. To illustrate this point, consider the saga of Steve Spurrier with Florida and then the Washington Redskins.

With the NCAA Gators, Spurrier wanted the ball as many times as he could get it, but he didn't want to use time when he got the ball. Florida's great teams, blessed with ridiculous quick-strike capability, rolled up points instead of controlling the ball. Spurrier didn't want to win the time ofpossession battle; he only wanted his defenses (well, make that Bobby Pruett's or Bob Stoops's or Jon Hoke's defenses) to give his offense as many touches as possible, so he could "hang half-a-hundred" on SEC rivals. But with the NFL Redskins, Spurrier's philosophy became a plainly bad fit for a league where, Xs and Os aside, his defensive players--paid hugely by Daniel Snyder, just like his offensive players--revolted internally and externally when the ball was thrown too much. On the other hand, when Spurrier ran the ball into the line to consume clock, the bland as molasses brand of ball improved the mood of the locker room immensely, because the defense was staying fresh and the team was minimizing its mistakes. In the cookie-cutter, punch-the-time-clock, just-win-baby culture of the NFL, players don't mind at all if boring and bland wins ballgames. But since that kind of ball didn't offer the creative kind of challenge Spurrier sought from the NFL, he walked away from the league on his own terms, a powerful statement about the differences between each style of football.

So back to Minnesota-Michigan. The Gophers were a more efficient team, maximizing output from the yards they gained, and coming up with more long plays than Michigan. The Wolverines racked up yards because they had the ball more, but they had the ball more because Chad Henne threw a ton of passes, two of which were picked in the second half, giving Michigan more chances to stop Minnesota and hand the ball right back to Henne. See how circular these patterns can be? Henne was outstanding in the first half, but in the second half, he lost his edge. Why he did is another conversation for another day, but the story is that he lost it. Both of his interceptions were poor ones, and they both came when Michigan had the ball around the Minnesota 30. One must ask this question: how many times must a team fail to score after reaching the opponent's 30-35 yard line for it to be considered poor offense instead of "good but not great" offense?

The whole measure of an offense should be its ability to score, and to make plays when the field shortens, making it more of a challenge to crack a defense. If an offense moves the ball at will for the first 70 yards of the field, but then fails to score, is that an example of the offense largely outplaying the defense? This columnist can't take that view, unless the given football situation demanded only that the offense gain field position or eat clock with a drive. If Michigan led by nine points with six minutes left and drove 65 yards in five minutes before throwing a pick deep in Minnesota territory, that could be considered a win for Michigan's offense, or at least a draw, because the offense did what needed to be done under the existing conditions of the game. But in the second half, Michigan's offense repeatedly failed to do what needed to be done until the very end.

So let's take a deep breath and look at the big picture: Michigan showed more mental toughness, more late-game resolve, and reaffirmed the fact that it knows how to win, something which Minnesota still lacks. It's to Michigan's and Chad Henne's credit that they were able to come through when the game's outcome hung in the balance. But all those deserved accolades don't automatically mean that most of the game's first 55 minutes were controlled byMichigan. Minnesota didn't steamroll or dominate the Wolverines, but the Gophers were more opportunistic, frustrating Michigan and holding a command position before the final minutes, when the Gophers blew it. If one looks at composite stats from the whole 60 minutes, one might think Michigan badly outplayed the Gophers. But if you break the game down into quarters or even individual possessions, you get a fuller feel for the ebb-and-flow of the game and all the specific situations in which each team had to operate. Being able to look at a game in sections provides a much more accurate picture of how each unit--offense, defense and special teams--performed in the face of certain situations. For most of the game, Minnesota achieved more situational goals and objectives than did Michigan. That's why it can be said that Minnesota outplayed Michigan... but not that it meant anything in the end.

Gopher and Wolverine fans should stick around and read further while some other intriguing case studies are briefly mentioned from this past Saturday: Cal had pretty good time of possession against USC. Yards? Cal more than doubled the Trojans. We all know about Aaron Rodgers' 29 of 34 completions. But Cal scored just 17 little points! The stats are all well and good, but how the heck do you outplay USC, not have any turnovers from your offense, and lose with just 17 points on the board? Jeff Tedford, unlike Steve Spurrier, valued time of possession more than the number of possessions. Cal's coach made a calculated risk of keeping his passing game short to control the ball and keep it away from Matt Leinart and USC. This strategic focus places all the game's stats in a very different light. You just can't look at the box score and, in a limited, narrow-minded and linear kind of way, conclude that Cal outplayed USC. The take here is that this game was a stalemate between the offensive and defensive units, with USC's cleaner special teams giving the Trojans a slight edge. Cal made more mistakes in a roughly even game. USC slightly outplayed Cal simply because the special teams blunders wound up being the difference. Had Rodgers gotten a late winning touchdown, one could then say that those stats had some measure of real value. But Rodgers didn't do what the situation demanded.

Furthermore on Cal-USC, after weeks of scrutinizing and critiquing the Trojans, it has to be said very plainly that this was an awesome win for Pete Carroll, Matt Leinart, and all the rest of the Men of Troy. Because of the quality of Cal's defense and the ferocious nature of this game, being quietly opportunistic was and is nothing to be ashamed about. One has to keep coming back to the central theme of doing what the situation demanded, and except for his end zone pick, Leinart did what the situation demanded. His receivers still aren't where they need to be, but Leinart didn't have the rough edges of previous performances against Va Tech and Stanford. With Rodgers completing all his passes, Leinart didn't try to be the hero; instead, he turned into a workmanlike team leader in a game where winning was all that mattered. Leinart won. USC fans shouldn't be hearing how Cal outplayed them; they should be hearing how the Trojans just keep fighting off the challenges--and challengers--that keep coming their way.

Wolverine and Gopher fans, stay with me a little while longer, please. Did any of you stay up to watch the LSU-Florida game? Florida reached the LSU 36 on several different occasions, and the Tiger 40 on a few more, but never scored on those possessions, much like Michigan failed to do on a number of occasions against Minnesota. So were the Gators carrying the play in those sequences, or was LSU's defense winning the battle? Then again, LSU outgained Florida fairly substantially and had its own set of botched, scoreless possessions that reached the Gator 30 or thereabouts. So should the yard advantage mean LSU outplayed Florida? And then there's the matter of JaMarcus Russell's two bad picks. Should the fact that Marcus Randall came in and played well mean that those picks really shouldn't matter much when assessing the game? Should the fact that Florida's defense gave way at the end render that unit the goat of the game, or should the fact that the Gator defense held off LSU for so long indicate that Florida's defense was actually rather heroic?

As you can see, these are complicated questions that don't have easy answers. But as Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lotby watching," and if you watch college football long enough (or any sport, for that matter), you'll eventually be able to look at games beyond the stat sheet or box score. Your familiarity with various schools, conferences and programs can enable you to take a game such as Minnesota-Michigan and make an informed decision about the storyline of the game. Watching college football intently for the last ten years (I don't think I was terribly analytical when I was in high school, so anything beyond the past decade wouldn't really count), I've seen enough of both Minnesota and Michigan--knowing their histories, tendencies and track records under Glen Mason and Lloyd Carr--to look at Saturday's battle and come to the conclusion that it was more of a "Minnesota, on the verge of victory, loses itsnerve" kind of game than it was a "Michigan, dominating all day, does the expected to win at the end" kind of game. The one storyline--centering around but not necessarily complimentary to Minnesota--was a better fit than the other.

From that column, whose truths only seem more affirmed now than they did then, the biggest and most important reality I can possibly re-emphasize is this one: "These are complicated questions that don't have easy answers." The purpose of discussing how to analyze a game--and how to establish and arrange a set of standards for conducting game analysis--is not to suggest that my particular standards are right or correct, more than anyone else's personal standards. No, my aim is to simply get the college football community, and especially my fellow journalists, to seriously question and think about what it means for one team to outplay another. We, as college football journalists, ought to have this discussion, so that we can serve our readers better and try to offer an even more objective way of dissecting a sport that, as previously established, is incredibly subjective and hard to pin down.

Will a discussion completely eliminate the subjectivity that exists in the world of college football analysis? No. But extended, ongoing and ground-breaking dialogue and debate will certainly have the benefit of educating fans, thereby giving them fewer reasons to think that college football journalists are biased or sloppy. When this happens, college football journalists willgain added credibility and find the freedom to have more expansive football discussions that respect the intelligence of fans. This, in turn, will shed even more light on the football discussions that go beyond game analysis and touch on issues such as nonconference scheduling, strength of schedule, strength of conference, margin of victory, and the various other factors that need to be analyzed with more clarity, objectivity and emotional detatchment. If we can ever get to a point where these kinds of football-specific issues can be discussed in fair, levelheaded and transparent ways, free of the clouds of media bias or institutional greed, the BCS title game and major bowl game debates that are (unfortunately but undeniably) a part of our sport will then become honest discussions instead of the political and emotional shams they currently are. And the only way tobegin the long journey toward cleaning up college football debates is to initiate meaningful new discussions that need totake place.

It's not about immediately insisting on new standards or right answers--they're elusive, at least at this point. It's merely about re-examining and questioning old and long-held assumptions about the representation of genuine dominance and excellence in football games.Why do we need to question and re-examine long-held assumptions about the real meaning of dominance and excellence infootball games, and by extension, football seasons? One game from the 2004 college football season--even more than Minnesota-Michigan, Cal-USC, and LSU-Florida--showed why. Let's go back to the MondayMorning Quarterback archives, this time from Nov. 13 of 2004, to explore a confounding Morgantown mystery that proves, once and for all, why college football journalists need to initiate new discussions... and why fans need to rethink old thought patterns with an open mind:

We've had this conversation all year: just exactly what does it mean to outplay a team? More yards and physical dominance? More big plays and fewer turnovers? Longer drives or shorter drives? More explosiveness or more consistency? Hanging in when you're making mistakes, or not making mistakes in the first place? There's no set standard, no one set of rules for making this determination. And until we have one uniform set of guidelines for doing this, football analysis will always--and should always--remain a much more nuanced and complicated business than some folks would want you to believe. Simplicity--while desirable and, moreover, necessary to a certain extent in life--is elusive in a larger sense. Just as people will never be the way we want them to be (something that would make life much simpler and more clear-cut), and just as life can never be free of stress or hardship or uncertainty (unless you become a hermit or seek a monastery in the middle of nowhere, and even then you're not assured of anything), football analysis can never and will never be free of ambiguity or complexity. Just look at the Boston College-West Virginia game this past Saturday, a game which stands as the ultimate testament to how the numbers can often mean absolutely nothing in the attempt to identify which team outplayed the other.

Total yards? 469-248, Mountaineers.

Rushing yards? 246-67, Mountaineers.

Passing yards? 223-181, Mountaineers.

Completions? 21-19, Mountaineers.

Yards per rush? 5-even to 2.1, Mountaineers.

Yards per pass? 6-even to 5.8, Mountaineers.

Time of possession? 34:17 to 25:43, Mountaineers.

Final score? 36-17, Golden Eagles.

Two punt returns for touchdowns and a plus-three turnover differential won the game for Boston College--that, and basic opportunistic play that will never show up in the box score. West Virginia had four drives blunted in BC territory: at the 47, 42, 41 and 33, with a field goal coming from the BC 8 when the Mountaineers, down 27-14 in the fourth quarter, needed a touchdown. The Eagles used their special teams dominance to collect field goals after great drive starts, and on the very few occasions when BC put together a sustained drive, they finished what they started by posting a fat "7" on the scoreboard. West Virginia had more snaps and more yards, but whenever the Mountaineers needed to make a big play, they didn't. Whenever BC needed to make a key statement, they did. That's the essence of outplaying a team: not dominating per se, but dominating when absolutely necessary; not running for 12 on 1st and 10 at midfield in the first quarter, but throwing for 6 on 3rd and 5 in the red zone in the third quarter of a tight game. Being opportunistic and efficient aren't the kinds of characteristics you can easily reduce to numbers, but they epitomize that fine line between winning and losing that shows up every week, and which--as the (positive) example of Texas and the (negative) case of Minnesota remind us--you can't conveniently explain in a neat, tidy display of clean, linear logic. The final verdict on how to identify the teams that outplay their opponents is simple: don't have any one preconceived formula or standard. Be open-minded when making such a determination. The Eagles and Mountaineers are to be thanked for driving home the need to reserve judgment--and think on a much deeper level--when delving into the realm of football analysis.

So let's delve some more, shall we? Again, one can't readily impose any standards, but we, as a community of college football journalists, need to begin to discuss them, transparently and openly, in front of our readers and viewers. College football fans across the country might say they hate us, but they nevertheless rush to hear what we have to say, either to justify their own football arguments or to show their friends on message boards that the media is biased against them. Either way, articles have a way of reaching large populations: they're intensely discussed, for better or worse. Journalists, then, might as well make their articles better, providing analysis and argumentation that are hard to pigeonhole or easily categorize. Therefore, in the name of better college football analysis, let's pose the following questions:

When do turnovers overtake total yards as ameasure of performance? Louisville had at least 250 yards more than Boise State in the 2004 Liberty Bowl, but four more turnovers as well. How do you wrap your analytical mind around that kind of a game? Do you say UL was better because of the yards, or that Boise was up to the task because the Broncos forced four turnovers? Or is it somewhere in between? Or somewhere not in between? When do turnovers overtake time of possession as a measure of performance? When do points overtake total yards as ameasure of performance?

When do big plays overtake sustained drivesas a measure of performance? When do single-play touchdown drives overtake 15-play field-goal drives as a measure of performance? (When do the field goal drives overtake the single-play TD drives?)

When is an offensive line dominant, and when is a defense good at bending but not breaking?What is the point at which a bend-but-don't-break defense becomes a plainly weak and poor defense? What is the point at which a ball-control offense becomes effective? Ineffective?Powerful? Impotent? What is the point at which an explosive offense becomes powerful? Impotent? Effective? Ineffective?

Is it a sign of dominance or luck for an offense to convert three straight 3rd and 10 situations after getting smothered on the three previous 1st and 2nd down plays in each series of downs? Is it a sign of bad luck or ineptitude for the defense that gives up those three third-and-long conversions after giving up zero yards on those six other plays (three on first down, three on second down)?

When is a team "opportunistic" and "good at cashing in breaks like a good team always does," and when is a team simply "damn freakin' lucky?" Is a team really outplaying an opponent if it totally controls the line of scrimmage, gains tons more yards, dishes out all the hard hits, and goes to the locker room at halftime with an 8-8 tie? That's exactly what South Carolina did at home against Tennessee. As college football journalists, do we credit USC with outplaying the Vols, or do we not?

When does a power football team's modest point total exceed a high-scoring football team's big point total? Case in point, how could a person judge between Auburn's 24-6 win over Georgia and USC's 55-19 win over Oklahoma? For Auburn, an 18-point win over a great defensive team was similarly as substantial as USC's 36-point win over a team that up and quit in the second quarter. Was Auburn's win better than USC's? Probably not. But should there be a legitimate debate about the subject? Absolutely--the games are close enough in terms of quality to merit a debate.

When is a touchdown truly a garbage touchdown, and when is a touchdown a sign of a team's genuine weakness? Case in point, was Virginia Tech's very late touchdown in the 2005 Sugar Bowl against Auburn (with 2:01 left) a sign of the Tigers' defensive weakness and Tech's offensive firepower, or was it a touchdown that, given the 10-point spread at the time, a testament to the fact that the Tigers still had the game very much in hand? In other words, was Auburn's Sugar Bowl victory a very close shave, or was it a solid victory that was closer than the score indicated?

How much weight should be given to special teams when determining football excellence? Case in point, should USC's special teams wins over Cal and BostonCollege's special teams dominance of WestVirginia be viewed as the primary factors in those games, or not?

How much should the point spread be factored into everything that happens in a football game, mindful of the reality that teams simply will not play with the same urgency up by 27 points as they would up 17... or up 17 that they'd have if up by 10... or up 10 that they'd have if up by 7... or up 7 that they'd have if up 3... or up 3 that they'd have if tied? Or, in the interest of being open-minded (that's what this discussion is supposed to be about), should teams be expected to play with the same level of emotion regardless of the circumstance? This would affect the whole trajectory and direction of this discussion.

How much should a fumble or interception be viewed as an offensive blunder, as opposed to defensive excellence? How much should a blocked kick be viewed as a protection blunder, as opposed to blocking/rushing excellence?

What represents a meaningful yard, and what represents an empty yard? In the interest of being open-minded, can there ever be such a thing as an empty yard in the first place? Should teams be statistically ranked, offensively or defensively, based on yards (as currently done) or on points?

How much should rivalry games be viewed as normal football games and standard representations of a given team's quality? What is the threshold (if any) where margin of victory should begin to be a factor in the evaluation of a winning or losing team's level of quality? When should "MOV" cease to be a factor? In other words, should it matter if you lead by 21 points with five minutes left as a result of touchdowns scored to build up the lead, or touchdowns allowed to trim the lead down to that same 21-point total? Or, to phrase it another way, when does a team dominate and slow down late, or when does a team play well but then allow a legitimate comeback to take place before finally stopping the comeback bid? So much semantics here...

On strength of schedule, should the quality of a win or loss be judged according to how that team was perceived and/or ranked at the time of the game, or in light of how that team finished its season? Case in point, should Auburn's 10-9 win over LSU be judged according to the fact that LSU was the much-feared defending national champion with a lofty top-10 ranking at the time of the game, when Auburn was unsure of itself? Or should the game have been viewed as a win over a solid but ultimately limited LSU team that wound up losing three games and narrowly avoided embarrassing home losses to both Troy andOle Miss?

On an even broader level, just what is or should be the most important factor in determining the quality of an unbeaten team worthy of BCS title game consideration, or a one-loss team worthy of BCS bowl consideration? Should it be non-conference schedule? Strength of conference schedule? Strength of conference, period? Strength of overall schedule? Margin of victory?Performance in big games? Overall body of work? Season-long consistency? Development and growth over the course of the season? The team playing the best in December? The team that did the most from September through November? The team most likely to win a bowl game? The team that did the most during the year?

And just what else should determine the strength of a conference schedule? Beyond the rankings and records of teams--and the debate about whether games should be assessed based on the perceptions of teams at the time of the game, versus the end of the season--how much should the loudness of stadiums be factored into account? Should there be an extra weight given to SEC stadiums over Pac-10 stadiums? For Big XII stadiums over Big East stadiums? Or should externals such as those not be factored into the equation?

Given that only the Big Ten currently has instant replay, what should be said--if anything--about SEC, Big XII, Pac-10, ACC and Big East games (plus other key non-BCS conference games) that are decided by clearly bad officiating decisions? Should these games be given an asterisk in the rankings at the end of the season? And if so, what is the point at which one can objectively say a bad call made the difference in a game?

How much should injuries factor into not only an assessment of a given team, but the according schedule strength of any and all of that team's opponents? Case in point, Tennessee scraped by Vanderbilt and Kentucky, but with third-stringer Rick Clausen at quarterback. The Vols were not treated kindly by the media for those close wins, but they were lacking their frontline players at QB and a few other positions. That scenario certainly raises questions about how much attention national college football journalists truly devote to big-picture analysis. We might as well call this the Minnesota-Michigan question: when is a choke a choke, and when is a great comeback by a superior team a great comeback by a superior team? How much should seniority and/or experience factor into a team's performance, and accordingly, into evaluations of its players for awards such as the Heisman? Should Chad Henne and Michael Hart have been looked upon in a particularly favorable or harsh way--not as persons, of course, but strictly within the confines of football analysis--for what they did in total in 2004? Do you harshly grade Michigan on the absolutes, or do you employ some reasoned relativism in assessing the Wolverines? Do you penalize them for their youth, mindful of how the team might stack up against a more experienced club? Or do you reward the Wolverines in the rankings because of what Lloyd Carr and the rest of the coachingstaff did, getting the most out of underclassmen? Is the standard an absolute standard, or an adjusted, situational and relative one?

When is a big goal-line stand a big goal-line stand, and when does an offense shoot itself in the foot and blow a big opportunity? How much emphasis should be given to repeat wins, such as Auburn over Tennessee? Should the first win be emphasized, or the second win devalued, or vice-versa, or something totally different? Should location, time of day, type of surface, and other details such as those--which were all different in both Tiger-Vol games--matter? Should Auburn have been downgraded for not winning as impressively in the SEC title game as it did the first time in Knoxville, or should the Tigers have been commended for being able to sweep an opponent under more pressurized circumstances? (See, it's all in how you frame the reality... there is so little objectivity here, it's ridiculous...)

And finally, in what I think to be the most important question of all, how much should we value emotion in relationship to the trillions of different things that happen to each of the 117 Division I-A football teams in each of their games and each of their seasons as a whole, from training camp to the very final gun? When ought we (or ought we not?) look at a given event and chalk it up to emotion, and when should we look at an event and chalk it up to excellence? Case in point, do we not elevate USC too much, given that Oklahoma folded the tent emotionally after Mark Bradley's fumbled punt in the Orange Bowl? Or do we push emotion aside and look at how USC maximized that play to the fullest possible degree?

To put it differently, do you make one emotion-changing play the cornerstone of your analysis as a college football journalist, or do you precisely look at everything but that one play in forming the core of your analysis as a college football journalist?

Folks, is that a long list of questions or what? And what's amazing is that other writers (and other fans) could surely come up with hundreds of other questions that flow from all of the above queries, plus some entirely new questions that stake out even more analytical territory. Simply realize, then, that there are no universally agreed upon and widely-established industry standards within the community of college football journalism for objectively, formulaically, and quantifiably addressing these questions. I cannot begin to emphasize this point enough (and I say that honestly, even though I've tried to beat that point into the ground, anyway!). Until we begin to truly address and talk about all of the above questions--and countless unasked questions as well--the subjective nature of college football journalism will continue to exist.

I don't know about my colleagues, but I--for one--asked many of these questions during the 2004 season, in the attempt to put college football analysis in the open and expose some of its profound limitations. I didn't create these limits, nor did I ever want them, but they're simply there--like a bad cold, they won't go away. It's useless to think you can make totally objective, airtight and 100-percent evidence-proof analyses of college football games, so there's no use pretending that there are magical standards every college football journalist should be using to neatly arrive at the same conclusion. No such standards exist. To the college football fans of America, I have one simple thing to say as we switch from the 2004 season to 2005: please allow us, the national college football journalists of America (specifically at CFN, which we know you'll read more and more, right?), to simply be wrong.

Allow us to make bad predictions and misjudge the meaning, relevance or impact of early-season September games. Allow us to think certain things about games and teams that, as the season progresses, become noticeably untrue. All of these things happen regularly and annually to all the human beings who follow this sport, and especially those who follow it for a living (or something less than a living, in my case). Being wrong comes with the territory, and disagreement is part of fan-journalist interactions. But for the love of God, college football fans, will you please stop thinking that there's a media conspiracy in this sport, and that we are just as lazy, sloppy and biased as political journalists in Washington, D.C. and other places of dizzying influence and corporate power? We don't call the shots in college football: the conference commissioners and college presidents do. No one on College Gameday is anything remotely close to the kingmaker and agenda-setter that Grantland Rice used to be a long time ago. And with respect to individual teams, we simply can't cover you all the time the way your hometown paper does. We're national journalists for a reason: we look at the whole storyline, and oftentimes, that means we either have to focus on your team's opponent in a big game, or we have to focus on an entirely separate game that doesn't even involve your team.

Please assume that what we're doing here is objective; feel free to call it wrong, but allow us the ability to make decisions and conduct discussions without having our very identity and integrity assailed from the get go, in a manner that shoots bullets first and asks questions much later, if at all. In 2005 and every future year I hope to spend as a college football journalist (which is not a guarantee; mental health is something I want to maintain, you know...), I'd love to simply be wrong... not biased, sloppy or lazy; not agenda-driven (except for seeing the BCS end, given that it would help the sport I cover), corporate-minded or greedy; not Eastern, Southern or Midwestern (remember, I live on the West Coast); but just--ahhhh!--wrong. Every football journalist makes a wrong prediction or a wrong statement, oh, at least several dozen times each season. When we college football journalists--or any journalists, for that matter--write a column or a piece of news analysis, we're writing based on what we've seen up to that point in time. We're using all the evidence we've been able to objectively gather and process up to that moment. This means that we cannot see into the future and know exactly what will happen. We can only predict. Therefore, when a prediction turns out to be wrong, does that mean we were poor college football journalists when we made that prediction? Should the measure of a college football journalist be how well he does (or would do) at a Vegas sports book?

I would hope you, the college football fans of America, would get the picture. Allow us journalists to have the pleasure and relief of being wrong--then we can spend our time writing about the new mountain of evidence that showed us why we were wrong. Now, if you'll please remove the proverbial gun from my head, I just might be able to breathe... and write, and dialogue, and analyze college football... a little bit better in 2005 and beyond.