A different kind of football

Here’s what I like about football:

  1. It’s a wonderful game of strategy.
  2. Players have to be remarkably alert and aware of contingencies.
  3. It involves tremendous athleticism.
  4. The conclusion of the game can be in doubt until the very end and there are multiple options for ending the game.
  5. It doesn’t have to be violent

Earlier this month I had the pleasure, the kind that comes along once a year, when I went to Lindenwood University to see a St. Louis Rams inter-squad scrimmage.  The Rams invited the public; the only charge was to bring school supplies for children who do not have them.

At the beginning of training camp, each NFL team is allowed to have 80 players under contract.  By kickoff for the first game, the roster is reduced to fifty-three of which only forty-seven can suit up for a given game.  This means that of the nearly 80 players who were on the field that August night (some were injured and couldn’t participate), close to half of them were “on the bubble;” competing for a position against teammates who are simultaneously their friends and rivals.  The coaches try to build a sense of team cohesiveness and unity when ‘marginal players” are really wishing the worst for anyone competing for their spot on the roster.

Football can be very precise and militaristic, and that’s the way the practice was run.  First the kickers came on the field to test their timing, strength, and accuracy.  Actually “long snapper” (the center who hikes the ball for extra points, field goals, and punts) Chris Massey came on the field at least a half hour before anyone to begin stretching.  He should be secure; no one else has ‘LS’ by their name on the roster sheet, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was thinking back to the day last December in the Dome when his knee was mangled, he was carted off the field, and shortly thereafter had surgery.  Was his knee up to withstanding the abuse that the long snapper experiences when on each play at least three defenders try to run him over because through him is the shortest distance to blocking the kick.  Massey looked nervous and he addressed it by stretching some more and kindly going over to sign autographs before any other Ram was on the field.

Finally the whole roster was on the field; coaches seriously leading them in calisthenics.  It seemed that the seriousness with which each player took the exercises was a function of how certain he was that he would make the team.

The “scrimmage” was a series of match-ups.  It began with the first team offense against the second team defense; then the second team offense against the first team defense.  Quarterbacks were shuffled in and out, protected unlike any other player by the red jersey that they wear.  The coaches experimented with different match-ups and while each defender might know which offensive player or players was his responsibility, the offense is the keeper of the secret; they know what the play will be; the defense has to “read and react.”  That particular evening the offense dominated, at least when they put the ball in the air; they could never get the running game untracked.  It seemed that each of the 8,000 fans in attendance had their eyes glued on #8, Sam Bradford, the first player chosen in this year’s draft and the quarterback who hopefully will lead the team back to glory.

As a spectator, I tried to do what was beyond my reach; to fully understand what was going on each play.  A quarterback drops back, looks to the right, and then throws left to a receiver who has run a five yard “down and out” pattern.  It doesn’t work; the ball is off line; the receiver can’t hold on to it.  So what happened?  Did the quarterback simply make a poor throw?  Did an offensive lineman fail to make his block?  Did the receiver drop a pass that an NFL wide-out is expected to catch?  Did the defensive back have outstanding coverage because the team was in the perfect defensive alignment for that play, did the defensive back simply “read” the play quickly, or was his sound coverage because he was just physically superior on that play?  And what about everyone else seemingly uninvolved?  Seemingly the right offensive tackle has little to do on the play because it’s a quick timing play going in the opposite direction.  But he can’t dog it because the camera never blinks and he along with the twenty-one other players on the field are videotaped.  After the scrimmage one or several coaches will assess with or without the player how he did on that play and every other down.

Watching the scrimmage was a wonderful challenge; trying to observe, absorb, and analyze as much as I could.  I couldn’t keep up; only able to focus on three or possibly four players at a time while everyone else was seemingly out of sight and out of mind.

The scrimmage ended in less than 90-minutes, about 40% the length of an actual game.  But I think that they ran more plays in quicker sequence than you’d ever see in a game.  There were no television time-outs.  There were no injuries with players being carted off the field because this was controlled mayhem (you can wish the worst for a teammate, but you can’t be responsible for injuring him).

Not only was the scrimmage crisp and intense, it was held without distractions.  There were no cheerleaders (now I know I’ve offended someone), there were no fans with painted faces, there was no video-board telling fans what to say and when.  It was the skill-building that is essential to the game that the fans who pay with more than t school supplies to watch on Sundays.  A very kind gentleman from the Rams had offered me a bargain price for season tickets.  I haven’t decided what to do; this scrimmage was my Super Bowl for the year because to me a game and a sport is great when it can stand on its own without hype.  That’s what happened that Saturday night in August.