The NFL’s Ban on Crown-of-Helmet Hits

The NFL’s new rule prohibiting some hits with the crown of the helmet is being called ‘controversial’ in almost every news piece it appears in, to the point where it’s drowning out another new protective measure to eliminate peel-back blocks. Marshall Faulk has been particularly vocal, calling the ruling “crazy” and “stupid,” and citing head-up/face-up hits as causes of injury, including the concussion Steven Ridley incurred from Bernard Pollard during last year’s AFC championship game. I’m in the camp that believes the head-up rule is one that’s going to make football a slightly safer sport for a variety of reasons without drastically changing the game.

The instant of collision between Steven Ridley and Bernard Pollard; notice a slight flaw in Faulk's reasoning.

It’s a foregone conclusion that our bodies never evolved to endure head impacts. The position where the spinal column can best absorb force (a neutral posture that results in crown-first hits in football) is the weakest position for the neck muscles. Our large, thin skulls aren’t dense enough to withstand severe trauma, nor are they faceted to deflect blows. Finally, the brain itself is structurally fragile and anchored in only one location, which means it can twist and actually bounce against the skull during external impact; it’s suspected the gyri and sulci (the “wrinkles” in the brain) evolved to limit the amount of brain surface exposed to contact during head trauma, but even if true it’s a bit like saying your skeleton protects you from gunfire–it’s true, but not very practical.

The fragility of the skull and the attached sensory organs led us to adopt protective behaviors to keep us safe. Almost paradoxically, protective helmets and pads put athletes at risk by nullifying these behaviors. The advent of contact sports—especially collision sports with hard helmets—runs counter to these behaviors. In football, the head and face are protected from the superficial wounds that would otherwise accrue with repeated blows. Without a helmet, concussion-inducing hits would lead to deep lacerations, fractured bones, broken teeth, displaced eyes, and other injuries that prevent subsequent immediate hits and deter future activities of the kind.

With the helmet, only the brain is unprotected, and its ability to send damage-indicating sensory signals is limited. Unlike a sensitive piece of anatomy such as the nose or lips, the brain has no sensors for detecting damage to itself—put simply, it can’t feel pain in the normal sense. This is great for doctors, who can perform brain procedures with only local anesthetics, but not so much for gauging our own head trauma. If we felt neurons tearing or being battered during a punch the same way we’d feel our nose breaking or lip splitting, football would be a very different game. Football isn’t the only sport to fall victim here. Boxing does much the same thanks to gloves and tape, which both limit superficial facial injuries and protect the bones in the hands, while allowing tremendous amounts of force to impact opponents’ heads.

Head-up hitting can help alleviate some of these factors. First, there are behavioral aspects. Face-up hitters are more likely to move under control and at slower speeds, which limits the force being applied to the head. They also tend to position themselves in a way that avoids a head-on collision. Part of this is an instinctual desire to protect the face, which can steer players towards more shoulder-to-shoulder hits. It’s also tactical in that a player with his head up, eyes open, and moving at a controlled speed is better able to avoid or deflect contact (in the case of breaking tackles and shedding blocks) or to make plays that might lead to better on-field results than a hard hit (such as a form tackle, play on a ball, or proper stalk block.)

There are also mechanical advantages to head-up hitting. I mentioned earlier the weak muscle position of the crown-first hit. This is because a neutral head position requires the muscles of the neck to work in balance with each other in a relatively loose manner while the spine is largely responsible for positioning. In this situation, there is little way for force to be dispersed from receiving angled hits; neither the brain nor spine is aligned to counter them, and by the time the muscles react to counter the blow, it’s already come and gone. This is part of why earhole hits can so often lead to concussions: the head not only takes the initial blow, but the neck muscles can’t react quickly enough to prevent rebound trauma caused by the head whipping around like a speed bag.

Head-up hitting, on the other hand, locks the head both at the end of its ability to extend and butts the base of the helmet against the shoulder pads and neck rolls/collars. There’s a slight measure of absorptive give (which might be helpful), but for the head to significantly whip backwards on impact the entire body essentially has to move along with it, thus offering much more protection from whipping. Head-up hitting also actively and dominantly engages the upper portion of the trapezius muscles and other thick neck extensors, which are the strongest muscles in the neck. Rather than being in a reactive balancing act with weaker flexors, the upper traps and extensors are already tensed against blows before contact is even made, which reduces extra motion in both axes.

Trapezius highlighted in red; note the size compared to other muscles attached to the neck and skull.

Looking back, Faulk’s argument about the Ridley/Pollard hit is specious—Ridley actually lowered his head to use the crown of his helmet against Pollard’s earhole, despite being in a fairly upright position. In doing so, he negated the absorptive ability of his body and relied on the weaker muscles of the neck. Essentially he contorted himself into a poor position. Had he kept his head back, there may have been only a glancing blow between helmets, with most of the impact occurring at the shoulders (which ended up happening during the hit, anyways) and he may have been able to better absorb force from the hit, though it’s not guaranteed as I’ll note below. Pollard is in a vulnerable position, too, though because he’s tensed and aligned as a result of essentially looking up at Ridley just before impact, he’s better protected.

Is the head-up hit a solution to football concussions?  Not at all. It’s really only applicable to players in the secondary, and not to QBs or linemen. In terms of the hits the rule is designed to soften, the trapezius is strong, but not strong enough to consistently overcome the force of angled linebackers or arcing receivers. Given that leading with the crown also has an instinctual element in that it can protect the face during impacts, it’s going to be tough to teach: we might see a ton of minor face-up collisions while the big hits still turn into crown-first blows.

Even straight ahead collisions like the back-on-backer hits the rule seems to target are going to still cause concussions.  Head-up hit forces created by football players at any level can lead to brain injury, and the sport is far too chaotic to guarantee only stable, evenly-matched hits. Referring again to the Ridley/Pollard hit, where Ridley likely lowered his head without thinking of the act, there’s also no good protective strategy for an upright player or someone in mid-stride/mid-leap. It’s extremely difficult for even a fully-readied player to overcome a mid-air hit followed by a slam to the ground. Even if someone in Ridley’s situation avoids the frontal tackler or limits initial contact, players coming in from the sides are still major threats, too.

And for Ridley specifically, his chin would have been exposed during the play had he not lowered his head. Crown-on-chin blows are like uppercuts from sledgehammers, and it’s tough to imagine a player not only giving away his chin, but doing so on faith that a defender won’t hit it.  Airborne and upright hits are just damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t situations where avoiding them is the only safe measure.

There’s also a devil in the rule’s details: leading with the crown is only banned outside of the tackle box, meaning short interior runs and blocks will probably still resemble a documentary on bighorn sheep.  More generally, if repeated subconcussive blows lead to the chronic problems that some suspect (or are a greater problem than occasional concussions), a head-up tackle rule only masks the real problem. In the final measure, the rule will likely help the immediate health of players by turning some hard crown hits into wrap tackles. But ascribing anything more than that is a stretch.

The Isolation Play

The Isolation run, or “Iso,” is about as direct as football gets.  A classic I-formation play, it has everybody on the line manhandle the nearest defender, while the receivers shoot inside to pick-up force and fill players.  The fullback takes a running charge at an intentionally unblocked or “isolated” linebacker; the tailback takes the handoff at a full sprint and follows this human battering ram through the hole:


Isolation play run to the strong side; SLB is the isolated defender.

“Inserting” the fullback through the line of scrimmage like this creates an extra gap for the defense (especially linebackers) to worry about. And because the tailback can cut to the left or the right of the lead block, deeper defenders on both sides of the formation have to make the right reads.  Since Iso’s run into the teeth of the defense, they’re usually short-gainers, though this is compensated for by their playaction potential–it’s hard for linebackers to not creep up when they’ve got two backs making a beeline for them.

I’m a child of the 90’s, so for a long time I considered the Iso play to be football at its purest.  It was the greatest common denominator among the top-level teams.  The NFL was still largely familiarizing itself with zone schemes, spill defenses, post-steroid era physiques, and spread offenses, an environment that favored the straight-forward Iso and teams like the Redskins and Cowboys, who took advantage of the play.  Meanwhile, running-based college programs like Nebraska leaned on the Iso to bludgeon lesser teams into submission, especially at the end of games when the option was an unnecessary risk.  (A close cousin of the Iso would be the interior Lead play, which generally asks the fullback to hit the first man he sees, as opposed to seeking out a specific player; note that you’ll sometimes see “Iso” and “Lead” used interchangeably.)

Emmitt Smith cuts off a block by Daryl Johnston.

Most high schools, meanwhile, played the same I-formation schemes.  Prior to the public adoption of the Internet, it was extremely hard to use new football concepts even if you subscribed to all the latest magazines and regularly attended coaching clinics.  Of the two best-publicized schemes of the time—I-formation, passing-tree ball that borrowed from Coryell, and split-back, route-concept schemes associated with Walsh—the I-formation was easier to teach and easier to match talent-wise, so it was either what most coaches knew, or what they could easily pick up.

Iso and Lead plays are more common the further down the ranks you go. To be honest, the only play I remember from JV is “Pro-right, 24 Ice,”  which was just a strong-side Iso out of the I.  Up by twenty? Run the Iso.  Down by twenty (admittedly more likely with waifs like young me blocking)?  Run the Iso.  It’s easy to see why: the Iso has everyone pretty much blocking straight ahead, so it reduces screw-ups when there’s a lead to protect, and at least lets your team worry about getting their heads straight when things have gotten out of hand.

The Iso (and more general interior Lead plays) had to evolve in order to offset the play’s biggest shortcomings.  First, the Iso was vulnerable to slants and stunts because it didn’t put blockers in a position to consistently create favorable angles.  Second, the Iso created a relatively small hole for the running back, so if a linebacker was quick he could gum the play up either by jamming the fullback near the line or by slipping the center-guard combo block.  For this reason, the classic Iso is now mainly used as a change of pace or as a clock-killer at higher levels of play; if you watched the Ravens wrap-up the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, they broke out an Iso/Lead play when closing out both games.

Though better known for “student body right,” John McKay’s USC squads, which were coordinated by Don Coryell among others, might’ve been the first to figure out a way to keep lead plays like the Iso working even against eight-man fronts.  Coryell and McKay (both I-formation gurus) simply added elements of the draw play.  This twist combatted both of the traditional Iso’s weak points.  A deeper, delayed handoff meant the running back could read developing blocks at the line of scrimmage and run to daylight; the linemen knew this, so they could pass set and react to the defense, essentially letting the DTs and DEs go wherever they wanted to and take themselves out of the play.  Meanwhile, the linebackers had to respect the QB’s deep drop (and the backs’ slight hesitation) by maintaining their depth, which gave the fullback plenty of room to make his block.

The trick to making the play work was that both the fullback and the tailback read the defense.  The fullback went to wherever the onside defensive tackle had vacated to meet the linebacker, while the tailback read the entire front for creases and cutbacks; if it happened to be the middle that was open, he read his fullback’s block to determine which direction to cut after clearing the line of scrimmage.  It’s easy to see how these reads fed into the evolution of the formal zone run game.

Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese, both Coryell disciples, ran the play with regularity when they served as offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in the 90’s.  It might not be a stretch to say that Emmitt Smith earned his HoF credentials with two versions of this hybridized play called “Iso” and “Lead Draw.”  The Cowboys “Iso” was a direct descendant of the classic Isolation play, as it had the fullback draw a bead on an isolated middle ‘backer.

The Iso-Draw play, as described by the Dallas Cowboys in the 90's; the hatch marks on the TB's path indicate a deep handoff.

The fullback in this case was the 6’2 Daryl “Moose” Johnston, who routinely served as clean-up man for missed blocks on Iso plays.  He was such an effective blocker that it was often advantageous for linemen to miss blocks, because Johnston would pick up loose DTs and free the linemen to occupy the ‘backers, creating a de facto Wham play (back-on-lineman.)  Smith, meanwhile, was a savant at reading fronts, and could often cut plays to the backside by three or even four gaps for big gains.


How Mike Mamula Crashed the Combine

Fairly or unfairly, Mike Mamula is remembered as the guy who exploded our perception of the NFL Scouting Combine.  His performance (which today might be considered routine) was so phenomenal that it may have advanced the Boston College DE’s landing place in the 1995 NFL Draft by several rounds.

Coach Mike Boyle.

There’s some conflicting background on whether BC strength and conditioning coach Jerry Palmieri (now with the New York Giants) or another local S&C coach, Mike Boyle, were more influential.  Both are excellent coaches who no doubt had major roles in Mamula’s performance; it seems most likely that Boyle was responsible for Mamula’s gaudiest performances, since that degree of specialized training would fall outside the range of normal activities for a college S&C coach.  Boyle is credited by some as the inventor of combine training, which lends more weight to this theory.

Boyle’s background in both powerlifting and athletic training informs his methods, and over the years he’s worked for most of the major sporting organizations in the Boston area, including the Bruins, Red Sox, and Boston University, moving from full-time jobs to consulting roles that supplement the much more stable and lucrative profession of running major training facilities.  These days he’s a known-enough figure in the S&C world to where his opinions are news makers; his argument against bilateral lower-body strength-training movements (especially the squat) kicked off a long-running debate not too long ago.

The set-up for Mike Mamula was perfect.  First of all, despite his post-NFL reputation, Mamula was a good player who’d been noticed by scouts. The LB/DE ‘tweener followed a solid junior year by capping his college career with an explosive senior season aided by BC’s switch to a 4-3 front, finishing with 13 regular-season sacks, an All-Big East nod at defensive end, and a four-sack bowl game.  Though not ranked highly at the time, he had the stats and situation that would corroborate a strong combine performance.  You can imagine a coach saying, “Well, if he’d played for a higher-profile school and had been in a defense that fit his skills, he’d be on everyone’s radar.”  In retrospect, it was also a weak class for defensive linemen, with only a few name players to come out that year.

That same hypothetical coach could also have said, “And he probably wasn’t coached well, either.”  It’s a common line of reasoning in the NFL, born of a big-brother mentality the league carries.  Some of it’s reasonable—get a guy full-time and with a paycheck on the line, and he might be a little more motivated than he was in college.  Other times, though, it’s simple arrogance.  Add to this that the 90’s were a renaissance for the 4-3 defense where speed became paramount, and the league would be easily excited by an athletic pass rusher.

The final ingredient was the insertion of a savvy coach into a combine milieu that was old-fashioned at best.  The NFL Scouting Combine was about a decade old in 1995, and was still seen more as a replacement for in-person visits to the Senior Bowl and private invites to NFL facilities.  It was about watching routes, releases, and footwork, and about interviews and giving players the eyeball test.  Not as appreciated was the fact that the combine was the only way of creating an even playing field for comparing athletic talents of so many players.  Rather than looking hard at what drills meant, they were treated as a “pass-fail” series of tests…and the players knew it.  In fact, the entire football system—from high school to the pros—was largely in an anachronistic mindset when it came to valuing strength and conditioning: it was assumed talents of speed and strength were largely uninfluenced by training.

Boyle’s strategy seems so simple that today it’s almost hard to believe he made people rethink the combine: he focused Mamula on the gaudiest raw-athleticism events (vertical jump, 40-yard dash, and bench press, in particular), and then trained him to be good at the events.  If Mamula could stand among his peers, coaches would reevaluate his film and see him not as someone taking advantage of weak competition in low-stakes games, but as a hidden gem.

The catch is that all the tests had little do with success on the football field.  The bench press test is the most egregious example: for a 400 or 500-pound bencher (which is common for college linemen), the combine bench test is an endurance event akin to judging a sprinter based on his 5k speed.  Players have to pace themselves, build-up tolerance to pain and fatigue, and learn techniques to make the motion as easier as possible.  Being overweight and having short arms is essential to a great bench performance; neither characteristic is exactly desired on the field.  And as you’d expect, most of the techniques for excelling at the bench press test have limited usefulness in improving football performance, and push the rules of the combine to their limits.

The strategy worked.  Mamula ran a 4.58 40, hit 28 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press tests, and had a 38.5” vertical jump.  He was faster than linebackers, had better jumping abilities than some corners, and out-benched much bigger offensive and defensive linemen.  It was an eye-catching performance.  When the Eagles selected him with the 7th overall pick, Hugh Douglas and Warren Sapp were still on the board.  In fact, Head Coach Ray Rhodes and company traded picks with Tampa Bay in order to move up and get Mamula.

Philadelphia got themselves a decent player, a solid guy who never cracked double-digit sacks in a season (but came close) and who struggled with injuries.  Some argue that starting three years for a top-shelf Eagles defense speaks to his abilities, though I feel it speaks more to the money invested in him.  I remember him getting engulfed by bigger tackles, especially when rushing the passer.  He never looked agile enough, either, to make the transition to 4-3 ‘backer, which might’ve extended his career (though it’s a very rare transition for the NFL.)  He was out of the league by 2000.  While it certainly wasn’t the career expected of a single-digit first-rounder, he wasn’t a Ryan Leaf, either.

Meanwhile, Warren Sapp and Hugh Douglas became forces on the field.  Despite his gifts, Sapp had a reputation as a wild card from his days with the Hurricanes, so the Eagles might be forgiven for missing a player who would’ve been a perfect fit for their system.  The Bucs took the risk, and ended up getting him and Derrick Brooks, the two players who would become the cogs of their dominating defense.  Missing Hugh Douglas was more of a head-slapper, at least in hindsight.  While he was drafted by the Jets, they ended up trading him for draft picks a few years later…to the Eagles.  He earned a few All Pro nods in Philadelphia, and helped provide the pass rush they never got from Mamula.

Out of all the parties in the Mike Mamula story, Mike Boyle probably came out best.  He’s an S&C star who’s regularly lauded in mainstream news, sports, and health publications.  While he opened the floodgates for combine prep, he managed to stay ahead of (or at least with) the leading wave.  And he’ll forever be remembered as a sort of gym-rat jester who pantsed the NFL at their own event.

Gridiron and the Silver Screen: Alex Karras

By any account, Alex Karras was a character: raconteur, salesman, entrepreneur, author, broadcaster, and actor.  Karras, who passed away just a few months ago, was also one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in the 60’s, though his talents on the field were somewhat overshadowed by the poor Lions squads he played for.  Nicknamed “Mad Duck,” Karras was a stumpy bulldog of a player who was so near-sighted he played by feel, and was renowned for his speed and violence.  A telling anecdote from a league game involved his mauling of a hapless second string guard; the opposing lineman turned out to be one of Karras’ older brothers (all three Karras boys played professional football.)  In recalling the story, Karras wondered aloud if he had subconsciously recognized his brother despite being unable to make out his face, and if he had taken out an adolescence’s worth of anger on a former bully.

Alex Karras as “Mongo” in Blazing Saddles.

Karras had a stream of oddball enterprises and hobbies.  He sold “personal massage devices” that he would demonstrate on the shoulders of unsuspecting passersby.  He hosted a celebrity golf tournament in Detroit that was essentially a day-long practical joke: the course could feature free-roaming zoo animals (he called a 300-pound tortoise let loose on the green a “moveable hazard”), holes so deep that sunk putts were almost irretrievable, loudspeakers blaring machine-gun noises, roving Mariachi bands, or a parade of armored vehicles led by a little person in Gen. George S. Patton regalia.  During a year where he was suspended from the league for gambling on other teams, Karras became a professional wrestler and once held a match alongside Bronco Nagurski.

Despite his talents on the field and exploits off it, Karras is probably best known in his far more mundane jobs as on-air commentator and actor.  He got a taste of the acting bug when journalist George Plimpton’s short stint as a benchwarming-quarterback was turned into the feature film Paper Lion; for the sake of verisimilitude, the actual Detroit team was called in to play themselves on screen, and Karras featured prominently in the final cut.  After leaving the NFL, Karras appeared in a dozen episodes of The Tonight Show and spent three years in the booth for Monday Night Football.  He had guest spots and supporting roles on a handful of shows and TV movies, and an extended role in the Centennial miniseries, though his two most famous gigs were distinctly different.

Karras, Emmanuel Lewis, and Susan Clark pose for a Webster promo.

The first was as the menacing Mongo in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.  The film is considered a comedy classic, and Karras’ role as a hulking force of nature with a surprising philosophical bent is popular even today.  Fans of the film might interested to know that Mongo’s horse-punching was reportedly inspired by a real-life incident witnessed by Mel Brooks in which comic actor Sid Caesar knocked-out a troublesome steed.

On the other end of the spectrum is his role as oafish father George Papadapolis on the long-running series Webster.  On the air from 1983 to 1989, the family comedy was produced by Alex Karras and his co-star/actual wife Susan Clark; the pair conceived of the show as a family ensemble piece about the life of an oafish former football player (naturally played by Karras), though rising child star Emmanuel Lewis was grafted onto the production by the network.  After a few stormy years (and a particularly rough first season fomented by ABC forcing Lewis-focused episodes) the show settled into the ensemble format originally envisioned by Karras.  Thanks to Webster’s long initial run and subsequent syndication (as well as his other acts), Karras might be the most visually recognizable player to come from an era that included Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, and Johnny Unitas.

NFL Evolution: The League Plays Defense

Any fans watching this year’s Super Bowl saw at least a few of the five ads for “NFL Evolution,” (NFLE) the NFL’s public relations answer to the growing concern over football and head injuries.  Between insurance issues, lawsuits, and even the erosion of the league’s foundation of K-12 players, the worst-case scenarios for how football fares during this era of concussion awareness are plentiful. Less clear is the likelihood any of these scenarios will come to pass.

While brain injury as public topic is a new hurdle, the league has overcome many difficulties and developed an approach that’s informed NFLE.  Before concussions and CTE became buzzwords, the NFL’s two main concerns were public visibility and maintaining a cheap talent pool.  It ably handled the former thanks to decades of promotional work that almost paradoxically managed to make the NFL be both a titan of tradition and the “next big thing” in sports; and an iron grip that was kept clenched on licensing partners and rivals alike.  Even missteps like the European leagues were contained failures that never tarnished the brand.

NFL owners have handled the talent issue more discretely.  Most important in their cause was building an alliance with college football programs that allowed the NFL to avoid the hindrance of running a farm system.  The system is mutually beneficial–schools have greater access to the game’s best players in the most financially rewarding sport, while the NFL’s future talent is developed at no cost to the league–though the NFL has exerted its influence of late by encroaching on traditional college game nights as much as antitrust statutes will allow.  Compared to the MLB’s massive farm system and the NBA’s mix of an expensive developmental league and uncontrollable foreign leagues, the NFL gets quite a bargain.

The NFL works further down the supply chain, too.  Football is an almost prohibitively expensive sport for many K-12 schools and youth leagues, and it was viewed with a wary eye by parents even before there was much awareness of head trauma risk.  Coupled with more recent concerns that the population of sporting youths is dwindling thanks to electronic enticements, and it’s conceivable football could see both future talent and viewers siphoned off to other forms of entertainment.  The league’s reaction has been to place a greater focus on reaching children through digital media, providing funding for youth programs through the NFL Youth Football Fund, and beginning an array of child-friendly health/wellness ventures such as NFL Youth Education Town to the more recent NFL Play 60.

The NFL Evolution campaign takes all these lessons and condenses them into a more aggressive package.  “Forever Forward Forever Football” (sic) is the motto.  The emphasis on “forever” isn’t an accident: with so much uncertainty on the health front, the league has doubled-down on portraying the game as an integral part of American life.  While earlier NFLE ads focused on the history of the league and its growth into the modern game (and clumsily including in the ads imagery of players involved in concussion lawsuits), the latest batch courts families more than fans. Three of the five new Super Bowl spots focused on youth players, including one that was just footage of Internet celebrity Samantha Gordon ripping off a long run.  Regarding the remaining two, one showed a mother and small child (the latter in a Raiders helmet) as they ostensibly watched a game, and the other was nothing more than home movie footage of the Kennedy family chucking the ball around a backyard in Camelot.

The NFL Evolution web page takes a more direct approach.  As I write this, the featured items on the home page include:

  • A piece on how football has “enriched” Mike Tomlin’s life
  • Three articles questioning the concussion practices of the NHL, NBA, and NCAA
  • A post on the NFL’s safety summit
  • An entire side panel on the league’s funding for research on player safety
  • And two posts that cast doubt on our understanding of concussion risk (in ways both favorable and unfavorable to the sport)

It’s a shotgun effort that simultaneously declares the game safe and modern, then shrugs and says “but we’re still making sure” and “the other guys are even worse.” The ads are especially divergent as they now target every demographic, with women factoring far more heavily than any PR campaign I can remember. It seems an unsophisticated approach for the NFL to craft something that relies on wooing moms (or at least stereotypical moms), but the tonal shift and its presence in the most important advertising window of the year only reinforces that this is indeed intentional.  Compare the NFLE spots to Chrysler’s much-discussed “God Made a Farmer” ad, which featured the raw imagery and stentorian narration we associate with the typical NFL’s promotional efforts–I’m surprised a fog-breathing Dick Butkus didn’t climb into a Ram at the end.

As for the NFLE website, I see little reason for the league to have a hands-off enough approach with the project to let an independent management team try to present the issue fairly.  There’s just no business sense in doing so, not when the league’s taking body blows.  NFLE is a promotional tool that pairs facts with feel-good advertising and deflects attention to other sports. It’d take a legal intervention (as happened to the cigarette industry) to expect anything different.

While it might be fun to argue just how manipulative the NLFE effort is, the campaign will ultimately play a small role the game’s future.  Though some were quick to equate the Super Bowl’s power outage as bit of symbolism befitting a falling sport, the end isn’t so clear or inevitable.  The league can thrive with just this level of uncertainty.  Lawsuits can be weathered, the promise of dollars will always lure risk-takers to the game, and an uncertain public won’t pull their children from the field en masse without better evidence.

Things like NFL Evolution can work in such an uncertain environment.  Provided technology keeps advancing, however, the uncertainty will disappear and we’ll have a truer understanding of football’s future.  Along the way, we’ll learn if NFLE was a savvy move that helped the game get through a rough patch, or a tactic that only delayed fundamental changes to the sport, its stature, or both.

Like Father, Unlike Son

The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl match-up has cast some attention on familial ties in football.  The “Brother Bowl” is rare enough to be intriguing in any environment, and especially so in the biggest football game of the year.  As good as the season has been for the Harbaughs, it’s been an uneven one for a handful of coaches who followed their legendary fathers into the profession.

USC's Lane Kiffin during the final seconds of a 2010 loss to Notre Dame.

Skip Holtz’s run at South Florida ended with a thud.  His second straight losing season notched only three wins, and built on none of the ground developed during Jim Leavitt’s long tenure.  Expectations were high for Holtz, whose success at ECU included two CUSA championships and a stretch where he nailed consecutive wins over Boise State, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia (all ranked, and with WVU at #8 at the time.) Many thought Florida’s talent base and USF’s strong position in a BCS conference were two ingredients that would elevate both program and coach.  It didn’t work out that way.

Holtz landed on his feet, though it seems that keeping the momentum developed by Sonny Dykes and crew will be tough: the team’s roster is built for one of the most unique schemes in the game, while Holtz isn’t known for being a whiz on offense. Then again, his dad survived a disastrous attempt to bring both the veer and the Notre Dame fight song to the NFL’s Jets.  And there’s probably thousands of kids out there who think he’s really a doctor, so maybe LT isn’t that great an obstacle.

When I started writing this piece, Derek Dooley was still looking for work following his departure from Tennessee.  After three losing seasons (including 3-5, 1-7, and 0-7 conference efforts) the biggest surprise may be that he lasted that long.  His tenure will be remembered for Tennessee’s first loss to Kentucky since dinosaurs roamed the earth, on-field coaching gaffes, recruiting failures, a hemorrhaged coaching staff, and the creation of a run-off rule nicknamed in his honor.  The last one is probably the only one people will remember; the rule was designed to reverse an odd situation where the Vols lost a bowl game because their opponent penalized themselves at the end of the game.  That game capped Dooley’s first season, which unfortunately for the young coach was also his best season in Knoxville. I wouldn’t bet someone else’s money on him coming close to equaling his dad’s national title and six SEC championships, especially since his post-Vols springboard team is the Dallas Cowboys, which has its own running theme of failure in this piece.

For my money, the saddest story actually involves the man Dooley replaced at Tennessee.  Lane Kiffin has been a mirror-universe Midas, with every program he touches collapsing into chaos.  He was given the benefit of a doubt over his Oakland exit—call it the “Al Davis Clause”—though the shambles Kiffin created in the wake of Phil Fulmer at Knoxville largely erased the goodwill.  Bad losses, recruiting and public affairs gaffes, an ill-advised public showdown with Urban Meyer, and a humbling bowl loss that showed his team to be largely unprepared and apathetic—Kiffin achieved all this in just one season, then fled the Tennessee Valley like a deposed dictator.  He even left rioting youth in his wake. He established shop at Southern Cal, where he teased Trojan fans with a 10-2 season before becoming the first coach to take a preseason #1 to a 7-6 record ranked outside the top 25.  He even echoed his bowl “success” with UT, with his Trojans getting soundly whipped by Georgia Tech at the Sun Bowl.

It’s the saddest story of the three not because of Lane (who still is employed with the Trojans), but because he dragged his father into it.  While Lou Holtz entertained audiences across the country with his Dadaist talents, and Vince Dooley enjoyed consulting gigs and writing children’s books, Monte Kiffin spent a fair chunk of his golden years trying to help his son win a few ball games.  Monte is recognized as one of the greatest defensive coaches to have worked in the NFL, and he’ll be synonymous with Tampa-2 schemes (and probably Cover-2 schemes in general) for decades to come.  So of course his venture into the college game was unrewarding.

The media tale is that the elder Kiffin couldn’t match the schemes of today’s spread squads, though it’s a faulty analysis: it wasn’t the smoothest schematic transition for Monte, though his game plans against Florida (when he was at UT), Oregon, and Georgia Tech had an expert’s wrinkles, and his teams held more than a few potent offenses to respectable scores.  An eminent professional, Monte couldn’t overcome the chaos of sanctions, blue-chippers, and his own son’s antics.  There are two versions of how his tenure in the college ranks ended.  He was either fired by Lane, or he willingly left for the Dallas Cowboys, a team led by the Lane Kiffin of Owner/GMs.  If you’re of the mind that he was escaping the college game, he knew going in that two opponents in the NFC East take offensive cues from Baylor and the run-and-shoot (Chip Kelly came along later.)

Rex and Rob Ryan are a mixed bag that seems appropriate for a year of successful brothers and lacking sons of coaching legends: the tantrum-throwing twins flip back and forth between being hailed as geniuses approaching Buddy’s understanding of the game, or being scapegoated (as is their current predicament.)  Come to think of it, Rex and Rob have quite a bit in common with their dad.

Rob Ryan and his playsheet.

Buddy Ryan at his peak was a defensive genius, but he was undone by a mercurial temper, stubborn personality, and a professional self-destructive streak that occasionally led to violence.  Rob’s work with the Cowboys was likewise volatile and odd. He brought the same strategies that at their best baffled even Tom Brady, though his tenure was marred by injuries to his players and their lingering difficulties in learning his shifting schemes.  In the end, his final season was eclipsed by the advertisements gracing his play sheets, and perhaps a bit by the arrival of his replacement, Monte Kiffin.

In New York, Rex seems to be on thin ice with the Jets, though given how much turnover has gone on in the staff and front office, it’s as stable as can be expected.  His tabloid coverage and the Tim Tebow trainwreck, unfortunately, have been more consistently newsworthy than his teams; barring some tremendous improvement, Ryan’s departure seems a matter of “when,” not “if.”

None of these examples point to any disadvantage with being a famous coach’s son; if anything, having family roots eases an entry barrier.  The stumbles only show how difficult the profession is, where even being raised in the football life doesn’t guarantee regular success.


*The Close But No Cigar Category:  In case you’re wondering, Michael Lombardi isn’t related to Vince, and Pat Shurmur is Fritz’s nephew.


From Brett to Manti: Football and the Internet News Machine

I doubt Jerry Yang and David Filo imagined that their tiny private web directory would grow into one of the most-used internet search engines on earth and a titan among internet media companies.  I more seriously doubt they ever imagined their grad school hobby becoming what might be the most feared name among college football coaches and ADs.

Yahoo! has come a long way since 1994.  So has sports journalism.

A thank-you letter from former Oregon Ducks Head Coach Chip Kelly to scouting service provider Will Lyles, as reported by Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel.

In many ways the Yahoo! sports staff is a cast of throwbacks: they painstakingly put together stories and follow traditional journalism’s rules on sources and verification. Charles Robinson’s and Dan Wetzel’s investigations into Miami, UNC, Oregon, and Ohio State played out over months.

The internet has changed the rules of journalism.  It’s given reporters unlimited and instantaneous access to sources and data, which is a definite boon to their work.  On the other hand, the democratization of start-up websites and free-to-operate blogs has created a wave of competition that’s empowered by the public demand for an instant and constant stream of information.  No print-run deadline has ever created a challenge quite like this, and the result has been the sudden appearance of football stories seemingly ripped straight from The National Enquirer.

Though they’re important to today’s climate, the big multimedia players–ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, etc.–aren’t the trendsetters or the risk takers (though I suppose it could be said that ESPN frequently risks its journalistic credibility.)  The big entities have advertisers, shareholders, and parent companies to keep happy.  While they’ve adopted the tools and techniques of the internet community, they won’t, for example, play by Deadspin’s rules.

Deadspin is one of eight websites in the Gawker network.  A privately owned company targeted at hard-to-offend, internet-affixed younger demographics, Gawker doesn’t have to fear audience blowback the way its bigger rivals do.  This measure of freedom allows Deadspin to serve as a sports-news tabloid where the writers often have a celebrity columnist’s desire to be part of the scene and a blogger’s flair for search-engine optimization.  Deadspin writer (now Gawker editor) A.J. Daluerio broke the Brett Favre/Jenn Sterger scandal with a story that focused as much on his attempts to wring information out of Sterger as it did Favre’s indescretions.  To quote Daluerio, he “persisted because I’m a dick and it’s an incredibly funny story[…]”

As distant as it is in scope and concern from a publication like The Atlantic, Deadspin at least tried to report a full story on Favre.  It’s easier to praise their recent expose on Manti Te’o. While still tabloid material, the piece sought to correct public perception with a few pounds of indisputable facts, and smartly embarrassed their more established competitors along the way. Not often rising to that ambition are the small-market sports operations–the team-specific sites of conglomerates like Rivals and Scout–and independent bloggers.  Both were badly exposed during recent bouts of conference realignment speculation.

Orangebloods, an independent member of the Yahoo!-owned Rivals network, became a go-to source for Big 12 and ACC fans worrying about how these conferences could cannibalize each other. Every day seemed to bring new updates and rumors from unnamed sources.  As rumor after rumor failed to materialize, it was obvious that while the site may have been well-connected to “insiders” with Texas and other Big 12 schools, it wasn’t well-connected with any facts.  In retrospect, I’ll give its operators the benefit of the doubt and say it probably fell victim in part to the machinations of a few higher-ups hoping to use the site for their schools’ (or personal) agendas, though the bulk of the blame for their failings lies in Orangebloods’ inability (or unwillingness) to vet sources and discern just how truthful their reports were.

Worse are the completely uninhibited loose cannons, of which Chris Lambert, aka “Honus Sneed,”  aka “Dude of WV” is a prime example.  An internet troll extraordinaire, Lambert used a Twitter account, a Blogger site, and a litany of unverifiable and oft-contradictory rumors to obtain the coveted status of “guru” in the minds of many NCAA fans.  How successful was he in getting attention?  One batch of comments on the Seminoles’ purported departure from the ACC is the assumed cause behind a retaliatory announcement from FSU President Eric Barron.

His predictions haven’t quite reached the same peaks, either because he’s being fed misinformation or because he’s making up rumors and tips by the gross.  Not surprisingly this isn’t a distanced, ethically mindful reporter we’re talking about: it’s a ticked-off Mountaineer fan who  has an ax to grind with the ACC.  Lambert admitted as much on Twitter, saying his goal was to “sow instability in the ACC & make poaching easier” in order to avenge the conference’s likely snub of WVU.

Still, everyone described above has at least vestiges of a traditional journalist, even if they’re by way of a shock jock or cult leader.  The last rung on the internet-news ladder is the hive mind.

Curious internet users–sometimes spontaneously, sometimes directed–have broken several football stories, most notably with the trail of follies that eventually coalesced into sanctions for the UNC Tar Heels.  Beginning with defensive tackle Marvin Austin’s ill-advised tweets, contacting public figures and conducting research throughout the story’s development, and keeping their gripes alive even after the delivery of sanctions, the NC State fans of Scout’s Pack Pride forums are without doubt at least partially responsible for igniting and maintaining the steady blaze that upended UNC’s football program.  During the process they turned rumors, complaints, and long-standing grudges into a stream of persuasive evidence, and when that wasn’t enough they transformed into a self-directed crowd-sourcing project that unearthed public records and established a virtual archive of every possible development and piece of evidence in the case.

While they pursued their share of false leads, the Pack Pride crew was eventually credited for several breaks.  The first was reviewing official (and publicly available) court documents and discovering that UNC football player James McAdoo not only blatantly plagiarized sources for a paper, but that both UNC and the NCAA had missed the obvious evidence.  More damningly, the Pack Pride crew also unearthed a transcript belonging to former two-sport UNC star Julius Peppers; the transcript, which was left forgotten on a public server, roughly verified the worst of the school’s academic improprieties.  If he holds true to his promise, it will also lead to Chancellor Holden Thorp’s resignation in June.

As unconventional as their methods were, the Pack Pride crew never entered dangerous legal ground, and their topic of interest was, at the end of the day, issues prosecutors rarely take interest in. The same can’t be said of the case unfolding in Steubenville, OH, which involves the alleged sexual assault of an underage victim by two likewise-juvenile members of the local high school football team.

While independent bloggers were the first to make the story national news, a cluster of computer hackers associated with the loose Anonymous collective upped the stakes.  The hackers (operating under the name “Knight Sec”) themselves collected some of the case’s most damning evidence legitimately by tapping into the near permanent and under-appreciated archival capabilities of the internet, and also by communicating with students in Steubenville.  Legal lines were crossed, however, when they hacked the servers of a privately owned fan site for the Steubenville football squad, defaced the site’s homepage, and broke into the owner’s e-mail account and dumped its contents onto the net; since then, the local sheriff’s office has become a target for even less discerning internet elements.  The national cachet of Anonymous amplified the focus on Steubenville, and Knight Sec’s choice of target essentially cemented (rightly or wrongly) the topic of “runaway football culture” within the media narrative.

It used to be that you needed an informant or a warrant to get behind locked doors.  Hacking has turned this model on its head, so much so that higher-ups at News International resorted to these measures themselves. Anyone who followed this scandal or Anonymous’ exploits knows that the security of personal technology is universally lagging, and that implementation of the defenses that are available is spotty.  If the past few years are remembered in any way for changing how the public gets news, I think it’ll be because hackers–whether “hacktivists” or simple miscreants–will become a larger presence, and break more and more stories (and pile up more and more collateral damage.)

Football could fall into such a trend.  Large, easily accessed networks like those run by corporate institutions and large universities are frequent targets for hacks, as are all manner of e-mail accounts and personal wireless devices.  Imagine a hastily drafted confessional memo on concussions stolen from an NFL server, intercepted e-mails proving collusion or interference with player contracts, or a text message on steroid deals yanked from the ether. Or, instead of focusing on a small town in Ohio, hackers turned their attention to the recent death of a Notre Dame student working for the football team, and in doing so made public every e-mail in Brian Kelly’s account.  If football, at any level, does become a frequent target for less-than-legal inquiry, there is one aspect that will be routine: it will be just the latest in a long line of challenges for traditional sports reportage.

Bryant and Saban

Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban.

[Saban’s] got a nice little gig going, a little bit like Calipari. He tells guys, ‘Hey, three years from now, you’re going to be a first-round pick and go.’ If he wants to be the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches in college football, to me, he has to go somewhere besides Alabama and win, because they’ve always won there at Alabama.”  –Steve Spurrier


With Alabama’s rout of Notre Dame, Nick Saban achieved something Bear Bryant never did–he beat the Fighting Irish, and for a national championship, no less.  True to his MO, Saban’s post-game demeanor was that of a man walking back to the office after a good working lunch.

Saban may well be on his way to owning more national titles than any other coach in college football, including the six generally attributed to Bryant.  Aside from sharing their best-known employer, Bryant and Saban have a handful of similarities.  Bryant had the same unshakable focus of Saban: Texas coach Darrell Royal once said “the difference between me and Bear Bryant was that I was a guy who coached football and then moved on. […]  Coach Bryant was a man on a quest, a quest for immortality.”  They are the only coaches to win SEC championships at two different schools.

Both Bryant and Saban will be remembered as taskmasters, with Bryant’s infamy owed to his reign, later regretted, over a Texas A&M squad in Junction, Texas, and Saban’s arising from a stream of demands and tirades that seem to peak when his team is destroying opponents, and an obsession over issues of discipline bordering on compulsive.

Both built teams by out-recruiting the competition and pushing rules on player eligibility.  Biographer Keith Dunnavant writes that Bryant “was probably responsible for the implementation of more new regulations than any coach who ever lived, because he was determined to use every loophole to his advantage.”  He signed players as athletes in every college sport besides football, “taught” courses in football that were de facto live practices for his team, and bought players expensive team gear to add class and distinction to the program.  Saban has taken on efficient (or ruthless, depending on your perspective) methods for culling weak links from his squads, hedging his bets by intentionally oversigning recruits, and running a marketing enterprise that pitches Alabama football in a way that puts Apple to shame.

On the field Bryant and Saban are known for efficient, well-drilled squads.  Conversely, neither are remembered as chalkboard innovators: Bryant gave credit to the trends he adopted and adapted, and while Saban is the most vocal proponent of his route-reading pass defenses, Bill Belichick is owed at least half the credit for developing the technique.  On offense, Saban’s approach is more related to Bryant’s pro-style squads than it is to today’s hottest systems.

Finally, both Bryan and Saban came to latent Alabama powerhouses that were distanced from their national title days, but not so distanced as to be forgotten or rendered moot.  If there is a football-focused caveat to Saban’s career, it is this last similarity.  His greatest successes came at LSU and Alabama during an era when membership in the no-holds-barred SEC is almost a requisite for winning a national title.  No other conference has the money, fan-base, or creative “intangibles” of the SEC, and no other conference has been close for over a decade.

This commonality is an introduction to where Bryant and Saban diverge.  Most recent out-of-conference challengers–Southern Cal, Ohio State, Miami, and Florida State–to the SEC ended up relying on their own cocktail of NCAA infractions to help leverage their legitimate attributes, though they eventually proved to be amateurs compared to the big-business SEC.  I say this knowing that violations, whether of institution policy, NCAA fiat, or public law, happen at every school at every level of play.  The SEC has just insulated itself from the consequences far better than other conferences by both practice and by its tremendous importance to the revenue side of collegiate athletics.

Alabama was coming off historic failures when Bryant arrived, and the SEC football monopoly simply did not exist in his day.  He won his games in an era far more formidable than Saban’s: Paterno, Osborne, Hayes, Switzer, Bowden, and Holtz were all in their prime at one point during Bryant’s career.  Meanwhile, Saban’s challengers are a ragged lot: the best pure coaches work at non-traditional powers, while his nearest rivals in major conferences are prone to self-destruction.  At the same time, Alabama is (and has recently been) without doubt the alpha of the SEC pack.  Look no further than hapless Mike Shula, who not too long ago earned a 10-2 season with the Crimson Tide.

Bryant also wisely avoided the NFL pitfall that has soured fans in both Baton Rouge and Miami.  Strangely enough, Bryant’s opportunity also came from the Miami Dolphins; his stated reason for turning down the Dolphins was that he would never leave Alabama just for a bigger paycheck.  This speaks to what might be a persona deficit that could hamper Saban’s status as historical icon: it’s rare for a man described as aloof, taciturn, and mercenary to hold sway over the imaginations of football fans and historians. Personality is partly why we “know” Bryant better than Bernie Bierman,  Barry Switzer better than Bud Wilkinson, and Jimmy Johnson better than Dennis Erickson.

There is one comparison to still be made between Bryan and Saban, and that’s their adaptation to changes in the game itself.  Bryant eventually had to adopt the Wishbone to successfully close out his years.  Saban, meanwhile seems to have a chink in his armor: the spread-option coaches among his competitors–Urban Meyer in particular–have managed to needle soft spots in the Alabama coach’s vaunted system. Today’s concepts threaten to strip him of the strict sidelines-control he values; if they become a long-term component of the game, it’ll be interesting to see how he adapts.  (Saban also may suffer comparatively by virtue of the fact that Belichick has adopted and mastered shifts in the game with great success in the NFL.)

All said, the jury is out on Saban’s final spot in history. Every coach is one calamitous decision or revelation away from public failure and humiliation, though if anyone is relatively safe from this, it seems to be Saban. The quote that began this entry reflects this reality, and while Spurrier’s words were more psychological warfare than anything, they also have a measure of truth when it comes to assessing Saban’s legacy up to this point.  Saban has had good stints with Toledo and Michigan State, and his success at mighty LSU reached its apex with an asterisked split-championship many think rightfully belongs with Pete Carroll and the Trojans. Given that the NFL is full of coaches just like Saban (and is adopting the same spread tactics he’s publicly lamented), it seems unlikely he’ll find redemption there, or a way to burnish his legacy the way Johnson and Switzer did.

There’s no doubt Saban is a tremendous coach, and perhaps the best in the NCAA right now.  But for him to be considered an all-timer, he has to personally surpass the mythos of Alabama and all it represents, and that likely means putting Bear Bryant’s achievements numerically and unequivocally in the rearview mirror.  Anything less and he may be remembered as the football equivalent of a jockey fortunate enough to have ridden Secretariat.

The Pro Pistol at Work


Alfred Morris' counter-pistol run.

On the stat sheet, it’s a ten-yard touchdown for the Redskins over NFC East rival Philadelphia.  In action, it’s a look at how the pro game is incorporating the best parts of college ball.

‘Skins Head Coach Mike Shanahan is no stranger to cutting-edge offense–his Broncos team made zone blocking schemes the tactic dujour at all levels of the game.  Melded with Shanahan’s West Coast background, the resulting offense earned John Elway his first two Super Bowls.  It was the perfect combination of old and new.  Neither Shanahan nor his staff have much in the way of recent college experience, unlike the 49er’s combination of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, for example.  This hasn’t stopped Washington from adopting all manner of spread-option plays and tweaks (particularly from Baylor’s playbook) to put rookie star Robert Griffin III in a position to maximize his talents.  The emphasis has been on using spread-option plays and the Pistol.  It seems to be working–at the time of writing, Washington is the league’s top rushing team and they’re a win away from claiming the East title.

Alfred Morris’ touchdown exemplifies the old-meets-new attitude of today’s run game, with college influences coming more and more to the forefront.  The play starts with a bunch-pistol look with the run-strength to the left and the line showing a pass-protection look.  The Eagles are aligned to match the run threat to the left, and as the play unfolds, it’s obvious they’re expecting pass.  Combined, the Eagles are poorly positioned to take what Washington throws at them.

Morris and RGIII make a reverse pivot/jab-step hand-off combo that gets the defense looking in the wrong direction, while the backside tackle pulls around to lead block.  This is a classic counter play and evocative of a Joe Gibbs squad at its finest: Morris runs to daylight almost unthreatened.  Of course, the classic counter plays all came from the I-formation, and usually had a backside duo pulling behind a mass of linemen looking to mow down anyone in its path.   While it doesn’t have any option aspects, this Pistol-formation play has the playside tackle pass-set while only the backside tackle pulls to hit an isolated linebacker feels like a pistol/pro adaptation of Rich Rodriguez’s Dart play.  Sharper eyes will notice that Morris is aligned a yard deeper than is standard in the Pistol; this is probably to give him more room to sell the counter and get to full speed.

However you peg its influences, the Eagles didn’t know how to handle the play.  The playside defensive end is best positioned at the snap to gum things up, and even better positioned (by default) an instant later when his colleagues get washed away from the play.  The DE reads the pass-set of the guy in front of him, though, and runs himself out of the play.  The backside ‘backer plays the pass, the Mike wanders into the line of scrimmage, and the playside ‘backer reacts too slowly to have an impact.  Out of the entire secondary, only the safety recognizes run, though even if he had a chance of playing force versus a pulling, full-steam tackle, there’s no one to fill in around him.

If it makes Eagles fans feel better, you aren’t alone.  Teams across the league are struggling to stop all manner of college imports and their resulting hybridizations.

Remembering the Immaculate Reception

Pittsburgh's Franco Harris wards off Raiders DB Jimmy Warren on his way to the endzone.
Called by some the greatest play in the history of the NFL, the Immaculate Reception is nearing its 40th anniversary.  While Franco Harris’ improbable touchdown catch had no major impact on the playoffs that year (the Steelers later lost to Shula’s perfect Dolphins in the AFC championship), it was the highlight of a game that signaled the start of four consecutive playoff matches between the two teams, and in retrospect heralded the imminent Steeler’s dynasty.  Forty years later, the play still stands as one of the most dramatic moments in American sports.

It was an exciting play by anyone’s standards, especially for television audiences.  The game was already a classic 7-6 slugfest featuring John Madden and Chuck Noll on the sidelines, and Terry Bradshaw, Kenny Stabler, George Blanda, Fred Biletnikoff, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Joe Greene, Jim Otto, Jack Ham, and Mel Blount on the field.  It was 4th and 10, 22 seconds left on the clock, with the Steelers down by a single point and stalling on their own 40 yard line.  Folks at home saw Terry Bradshaw elude two rushers and heave a desperation pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua, only to have feared-hitter Jack Tatum level the intended receiver.  The ball was knocked out of view.

Then Harris flashed into the frame, a defender trailing him.  He had made a shoestring catch of the deflection and was running down the sideline.  The only player capable of stopping him–Jimmy Warren–was caught so off-guard that he was two steps late in taking what would’ve been a makeable tackling angle.  Harris stiff-armed Warren and stepped into the endzone to win the game.

The play’s controversy came from a now-stricken rule: at the time, receivers couldn’t catch mid-air balls that had deflected off a teammate.  If the ball had touched Fuqua before Harris’ catch, the play would be dead by rule; if it had instead bounced off Tatum, it would’ve been a live ball.  The refs ruled on the side of the Steelers and history was made.

Not surprisingly, there’s debate to this day as to who the ball actually hit.  A woozy Fuqua told listeners after the game that the ball had struck his chest.  John Madden says he still can’t figure out what happened, and has sworn off making comments about the play.  While today’s high-speed/hi-def cameras and instant replay might’ve made a conclusive statement, the grainy footage of yesteryear doesn’t clearly show who caused the deflection, and never shows if Harris caught the ball without it touching the turf.  Some have likened NBC’s footage of the play to a sports version of the Zapruder film.

The deflection has been the biggest source of contention–not even the Raiders argue much that Harris failed to make a clean catch.  The clearest indicator of who caused the deflection is the speed at which the ball bounced away.  Carnegie Mellon physicist John Fetkovich determined that only Tatum, who was rushing full-speed towards the in-flight ball, could’ve deflected it so forcefully.  That’s good enough for me, though I imagine even decades after the fact more than a few Raiders fans unconvinced.