Monday, October 08, 2007

Hero Worship and the NFL

I’m not big on hero worship. There are a lot of reasons for that (namely that we tend to put those very fallible humans on pedestals that can never be true) but I’m even more opposed to Sports Hero worship. Sports can be marvelous. Athletes do things that cause us to say, “How did he do that?” with Barry Sanders being the all time leader in those types of reactions. But that doesn’t make them geniuses. The reality is that the vast majority of athletes never finish college, not to mention approach genius level. And I don’t fault them for that or for receiving the “genius” label from a fawning media.

But this post really isn’t about athletes because all things being even, they’re not often referred to as “geniuses”. Sure the entitlement culture fully captures them, but there are other, more popular superlatives than “genius”. No, the genius label is mostly reserved for coaches these days. Especially football coaches (see: Belichek, Bill). Today I wish to debunk the idea.

I am not a genius. But, if I were to live in a house of severely retarded persons, I could easily be considered a genius compared to my housemates. Such is life in the NFL. I give you the Green Bay and Detroit examples.

Anyone following football this year has been shocked by the rise of Detroit and the return of Green Bay to football success. And it was shocking – but not because of Brett Favre’s resurgence or Mike Martz’s offense. It was shocking because opposing defensive coordinators couldn’t come up with a scheme to combat a 95% pass – 5% run offense. After a few weeks, the “genius” precursors started to appear in the average sports column. Writers started falling all over themselves at how “Brett Favre was back” and that the Lions were a team of destiny. Superlatives started to flow for the coaches of each team. Playoff tickets went to printers and dreams of the Super Bowl were not just deeply recessed in the minds of the fans, they were openly spoken of (I made up the last sentence).

And then, Week 5. Washington 34 – Detroit 3. Chicago 27 – Green Bay 20. Now perhaps the sports columnist love affair can die down for a week or two. These teams beat those teams because of one thing – a “clever” plan.

Take the Redskins. They’re playing the Lions who have no semblance of a run game so, they drop everyone into coverage and just rush four at the passer. Shockingly, it shuts down the Lions offense to such an extent that they start the second half running the football (with some success). It took 5 weeks of the season for a defensive coordinator to think, “Hey, why don’t we just drop everyone into coverage and make a career mistake-prone QB throw into double coverage all afternoon?” Enter the “genius” defensive coordinator.

Or, take the Bears. The team has clearly been devastated by injuries and I expected Green Bay to win because of that factor. But what do the Bears do? Same thing. Except….they wait until the 2nd half before realizing that Favre can only dink and dunk and that the Packers have no real run game. So, they back the guys up a bit, drop into coverage, and completely shut down a Packers offense based on the idea that the opposing defense will be blitzing the passer every down. Green Bay’s response?


No wonder everyone thinks Belichek is a genius – he’s just a smidgeon smarter than the typical idiot level NFL coach.

So, next time you see a sports coach referred to as a “genius” just remember the competition.

(This post is not meant as a slight on the NFL, football in general, or even football coaches. It's more an attack on the sports media. And football coaches.)

UPDATE: I wasn't overstating the case. Here's a Washington Post article explicitly making the genius claim.


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