Some things are assumed common knowledge that maybe shouldn't be: the ability to fix basic household appliances, a knowledge of firearm safety, and the skills needed to successfully perform oral sex on a woman. In all these cases, failure to properly fess up and admit ignorance can be avoided for years; indeed, some people go to their grave without learning some things you'd assume were in the first ten pages of the human operating manual.
(Orson Welles, for instance, could only perform math using his fingers to count, which may have explained his losing track of the exact number of hot dogs he shoved down his gullet a day)
Another Orson who couldn't count.
You could be exposed, of course, and suffer embarrassment of a degree unseen since the last time you walked in on your father putting the grunty hunker on your mom. There's real danger here too, people: exploding appliances, bullet wounds you'll have to make up elaborate, implausible stories around ("That? Oh, got that in Uganda when I was fighting the Lord's Resistance Army. By myself. You need another drink?") Not to mention unhappy wives, a force more dangerous than any assemblage of flaming appliances and haphazardly discharged firearms could ever be.
Point being? When you don't know, ask--and despite what many assume, not every one who burns precious retinal tissue watching college football knows what they're looking at. That's ostensibly why they've got guys paid by the network who try to extract sense from the thousands of pounds of corn-fed manhood blitzing, sprinting, and pummeling each other between chalk-lines. People--bloggers included--toss around terms like the 4-3, spread option, zone coverage, and any other highly specific football term without ever pausing to explain, clarify, or wonder if everyone else is nodding along in the same manner as half the men in the world who watch other guys change tires or the oil in their car while thinking "No clue, man. No f'n clue."
From time to time, then, we'll provide the layest of layperson explanations for certain football tactics and theory.
We hope it'll be useful in a few senses: one, to review the basics, and thus enhance the viewing pleasure by attaching a slim framework of cunning strategy and technique to what you're seeing from the stands/on the screen. This won't be your graduate work in the minutiae of the zone blitz, or a manual for implementing your own defensive dynasty at your local high school. (There's an entire canon of literature to use for this, most of which are put out in conjunction with coaches, who make tidy sums preaching to their choir of local high school and middle school coaches in the form of books and instructional videos.) It'll be a simple overview of terminology, positions, and basic strategies.
You could start any place conceivably, since every evolution in football strategy is contingent on some other tweak or adjustment made by a coach. We'll choose to start not with offense, but with the most basic defensive set in all of football, and the most common alignment you'll see in college football: the vaunted, dependable, and time-tested 4-3 defense.
The 4-3: Plug'n play D for swinging modern lovers.
The 4-3 is classic defense--effective, relatively easy to understand, and tweakable to fit the talents of the defensive players on your roster. It's also the "natty brown pants" of the defensive world in that it's essential, never goes out of style, and is useful in a variety of situations. Shield your eyes from the unbearable hotness:
Like Pootie Tang, even its silences make number one hits.
The x's would be your defenders, and the O's would be your offensive personnel. We're focusing on the seven Xs in the middle who give the scheme its name: the 4-3, named this because you've got four lineman and three linebackers setting up against the five down linemen, tight end, and offensive backfield.We'll be concerned with the middle seven for the majority of this article, since the four players unaccounted for will act as the cover guys for the pair of wide receivers and the insurance policy (you might call them safeties) against anything getting past the defense entirely. Like most great innovations, the 4-3 sprung as an improvement from a previous, slightly inferior concept, the 5-2 defense (named this because you had...exactly, 5 lineman and 2 linebackers. Congratulations! You've automatically qualified to attend graduate school at Florida State.)
The 5-2 packed a lot of beef on the field at once. Regardez:
The 5-2 worked just fine for decades. In fact, it still works in modern variants at the college level: Penn State ran the 5-2 until the 1980s, and Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech teams have run a variation on the 5-2 that along with stout special teams helped to define the Hokies as a national power. The problem with the 5-2 didn't emerge in the college game, but in the pros as Vince Lombardi's power sweep strung defenses into confetti in the NFL. The philosophy behind the power sweep had been to "run to daylight" rather than to a specific hole, allowing a back to use his vision to find the best seams in the defense. With each lineman matched up against a specific offensive lineman, the pair of linebackers were forced to make the tackle while running into a mob of blockers halfway across the field. As you might imagine, this was akin to tackling a greased rhino on the run in the middle of a street riot; the defense, overinvested in all that big, slow beef along the line, was clearly at a disadvantage when teams ran to the margins of the field. (For you World War Two buffs, think of the Maginot Line and the old Von Schlieffen plan; for you Mike Tyson's punch out folks, think of Bald Bull, the guy who was unbeatable straight on but went down like a pinata when you came at him laterally.)
Tom Landry, he of the slick hats and the eponymous middle school in Arlen, Texas, offered up an ingenious solution: drop the middle lineman position altogether and move him about three yards from the line of scrimmage. This lineman, formerly the old nose tackle position in the 5-2, became known as the middle linebacker. Rather than matching up man to man with the offensive line, Landry had defensive players cover the gaps in the line, which was all they were really defending in the first place--the spots that backs squirted through in the process of gaining yards. Landry's theory was simple, elegant, and ultimately so effective that the 4-3 became the default set for football defenses in the modern era, rivalled only by the 3-4 (three down lineman, four linebackers) for versatility and utility.
Where's his goddamn Nobel? Tom Landry, lord of the 4-3.
What makes it work? First off, gap control and ability to cover the entire line of scrimmage with a good blend of speed and power. With four linemen, the scheme has enough brawn to work the control of the gaps in the line and allow linebackers (who tend to be lighter and faster) to fly to the ball and do nasty damage to ball carriers. Assignments become key here; most teams still number the gaps in the line and refer to specific techniques by those numbers, rather than just telling them "um, yeah, go block that guy." (Michigan fans might disagree with this point, having had Jim Herrmann as their DC for an unfortunate span of years.) The systems vary, but all you need to know is that each defensive player in the 4-3 has a specific gap to cover and should know their assignment. When they don't know them, bad things happen and running backs usually end up scaring the daylights out of lightish defensive backs on busted assignments.
Second, the scheme gets a third linebacker on the field, which ups the athleticism factor for a defense by a significant quotient and forces the game into the balanced dynamic most people call optimal football today. The 5-2's weakness came against teams with lateral speed and the ability to pass, a weakness that became more and more apparent with each passing year as offenses opened up and began using the whole field. Adding a linebacker allowed not only for more defensive speed to counter the sweep, but also improved pass coverage and took away whole swaths of the field from the offense.
The elegance of the 4-3 also meant that schemes could be as simple or as complex as coaches liked. For instance, here's Indianapolis' basic cover 2, a 4-3 scheme based on divvying up the field into sections that relies on solid coverage and minimal blitzing.
You go there. I go there. Hit something.
This is very similar to the scheme Bob Stoops ran in his time as the DC at Florida and still runs as the head coach at Oklahoma. After seeing him speak once about the scheme, we were convinced we could play corner in this scheme; to tell the truth, we think Bob was feeling it, too, since he's convinced that anyone can play as long as they stick to their assignments, hit, and tackle. The Bucs managed to win games with Mike Shula as their offensive coordinator thanks to the cover-2; we can't think of a way to say it with more conviction and strength than that, really.
Simplicity in the 4-3 can kill, but so can complexity: Pete Carroll's mixes at USC have been the backbone of the Trojans' resurgence as a national power, byzantine arrangements mixing coverages, blitzes, alignments, assignments, and on occasion, interpretive dance numbers to distract opponents. Charlie Strong's 4-3 scheme at Florida relies on similar intrigues, though Greg Mattison's elder statesmanship has toned down some of Strong's more reckless tendencies. In either case and in countless others, the basic set can be tweaked into whatever the defensive coordinator wants, whether it's Miami's bump and run man-to-man coverage, Gene Chizik's anaconda zones at Texas, or Jon Tenuta's blitz-freaky schemes at Georgia Tech.
Like we said in the beginning, this represents the barest bones of an attempt at explaining some basic terminology. But hopefully you've got a taste of the grandeur of football strategy, too, a brief illumination of the sublime chess match going on beneath the grunting, bleeding, and screaming going on before your eyes. The violence may be the beginning of the addiction, but it's the strategy that sets the hook for the long-term obsession. Someone has said this better, of course:
Simply as a spectator sport, however, football is an American art form, a blend of practical, bone-crushing action with mental ingenuity and foxy foresight worthy of chess...Unlike baseball, with its sentimental pastoral fantasies, football does not wimp out at the first drop of rain. Like an army on the march, football forges ahead through downpours and snowstorms. It has a courageous, truthful view of savage pagan nature...
The raw material world is one of football's major themes. With its muscular masses, brute collisions, and soaring trajectories, football is a crash course in basic physics. Each play is a gamble with grave risks. Any punishing hit or pileup can permanently maim or cripple. Bloodshed is a constant.
The massive playbooks that each professional team annually constructs and masters are continually revised in action. While coaches scrutinize opponents from the sideline or a sky box, quarterbacks and runners must "read" the defense and make instantaneous adjustments, with a score of grappling men in wild motion around them. Football demands a militant hard body and a poetically fluid mind.
Who was so moved as to put this on record? Postfeminist critic Camille Paglia, who caps the piece by imploring women to watch football since, as she puts it emphatically, "Football will keep us strong!" Put someone on a balcony in a uniform screaming this to an adoring throng, and we'd come damn close to voting for them.
Other reading: For a more technical (and more astute by far) breakdown of the 4-3 basics, check out this. There's oodles of great sources out there, so get as deep into the geekery as you like. Which, knowing you, will probably be up to your dorky little eyeballs.
Camille Paglia: "Gridiron Feminism."
Paul Pasqualoni's Guide to the 4-3 at Coach Illustrated.
Wikipedia: Tom Landry.