The Sporting Iconoclast
Challenging the conventional wisdom, sowing new ideas, sending some old ones to the compost heap

Feb
22

Football and TV – how can you spoil such a good combination? Let me count the ways.
1. The ground-level view
This is where we get to watch the kickoff return as if we were seated in the end zone behind the returner. This used to be a favorite of directors, who considered it the perfect way to “bring the action right into your living room.” Problem: From this perspective we have no idea where the returner has fielded the ball (the goal line, the 10?) or how much progress he’s making in getting it up the field. All we see is a guy jerking and spinning with bodies flying around in a blur. Mercifully, the ground-level view of kickoff returns has all but been abandoned. But it’s still commonly seen on the punt snap. We’re put at field level behind the punter, so we can see rushers advancing, but it’s impossible to tell if they have a chance of blocking the kick, the most important aspect of the play. Guys, there’s a reason people prefer to sit halfway up the stands on the 50-yard-line instead of Row A in the end zone. You get a better view of the game.

2. Quitting on the game
You’re watching a game. Maybe it’s not a close game. Maybe there’s not a lot of time left in the game. It becomes obvious that the announcers have lost interest and want to go home. The director is bored, too, so he does a cut-away to show the announcers in the booth. They launch into a discussion of their holiday plans or tonight’s lineup on their network and which of the shows is their favorite. Oh, wait a minute, hey, let’s welcome into the booth the star of the network’s new “hit” series (two episodes have aired). If we’re lucky, we now get two windows on screen: One (often the smaller) shows that silly game, the outcome of which is no longer in doubt and nobody cares about. The other shows the gab fest in the booth. Here’s the flaw in this director’s logic: The viewers who have grown bored with the game have changed channels. Everyone who remains is, by definition, interested in watching the game. Many fans, myself included, want to see every minute of their team’s games, no matter if they’re behind by 30 or ahead by 30. Especially if they’re ahead by 30.

3. The instant reply that never is
You’ve just watched a spectacular pass reception or punt-return for a touchdown and can’t want to see it again. Not so fast. First we have to watch the extra point kick, the most boring scoring play in football. OK, the kick is up and it’s good. Now let’s see the replay of the touchdown. Forget it. You will not see a repeat of what you witnessed. You’ll see the play from three or four or five other angles. Actually, two of them won’t show the touchdown at all, they’ll show the opposing coaches’ reactions to the play. All of this is often interesting, but the original view, from the sideline, usually shows the play the best. You might see the original view in the highlights at halftime or postgame. Apparently the director thinks, “We’re paying four or five camera operators to record every play. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that work go to waste.” I know, this is why we have DVRs, but we don’t all have them, and why make the viewer do the work?

4. The “keys to victory”
Before each game the color commentator will put his analytical skills on display by stating what each team needs to do to win. We hear are things like contain LaDainian Tomlinson, win the time-of-possession battle, or stay out of third-and-longs. I can save the commentators some work here: The key to victory in every football game is. . . score more points than you give up. It doesn’t matter if you win 3-2 or 100-99. Score more points than you give up and you will win every game, guaranteed. The “keys to victory” have now been rendered obsolete. Stop doing them.

5. Self-introductions by players
On each team’s first possession we are given the name of the 11 starters on each side of the ball. Originally this was presented as a sort of lineup card, just names and numbers. Then came names and photos. Now, through the miracle of digital video, we have recordings of each player saying (sometimes mumbling) his name and where he went to college. Only the most obsessive of fans cares to learn the names of all 22 people on the field. (Sorry, offensive linemen, but you know this better than anyone.) The only people interested in watching players demonstrate that they know their names and where they sat through sociology and communication classes are the players’ friends and family members. Instead of tediously “setting the lineups,” introduce us to players individually when they make a great play or a boneheaded one.

6. No interviews with the losers
It happens after every Super Bowl broadcast and at the championship games in most other team sports. We get the presentation of the championship trophy and interviews with the winning coaches and players, sometimes in their locker room. As for the losers, there’s a brief, funereal interview with the coach outside his team’s locker room. Why? Are his players bawling their eyes out, unable to speak? I want to hear from them, especially if it was a close game. Did you think that interference penalty called on you was fair? Did you agree with the coach’s decision to punt? Reporters have access to both teams’ players after every other game. Why do Super Bowl losers get to grieve in private?

7. Announcers who don’t know the rules
Pro football is complicated. There are lots of rules, and, unlike baseball, the authorities change a few of them almost every year. Fans can be forgiven for not knowing all the rules. Announcers who make six-figure salaries to work half a year and perform for three hours a week cannot. For example, if a member of the punting team touches but fails to down the ball on a punt, any player on the receiving team can try to pick up the loose ball and run. It’s not a reckless play, it’s a smart one because there’s no-risk. Even if he fumbles, his team can always elect to take the ball at the point where the kicking team’s player first touched it. That’s the rule, but announcers repeatedly demonstrate that they don’t know it. Considering how complicated the rules of pro football are, it’s a mystery why one of the networks doesn’t give a retired official a tryout as a color commentator. He could probably bring a fresh perspective along with knowing the rules.

Ed Cohen

Feb
09

In case you missed it — and by “it” I mean the Pro Bowl — count yourself lucky. Because it will be harder to miss next year.

The NFL is moving its annual mid-winter sedative to the site of the Super Bowl the week before the big game. For the past 30 years it’s been held in Hawaii the week after. As ideas go, this is one. If nothing else it will guarantee that no players on the Super Bowl teams participate in the Pro Bowl.

If you think that makes little sense, how about this idea: The Yahoo! Sports blogger MJD wants to replace the Pro Bowl with a three-day flag football tournament.

The Pro Bowl has always been the all-star game most in need of a makeover. But it’s not the only one. Take the NBA all-star game. The next one is Feb. 15 in Phoenix. For years Ive been suggesting a simple, free way to improve it: Turn the game into a pickup game.

Here’s how and why:

A half-hour or so before the tip you have all the players elected or named to the game assemble at mid-court. The two players who received the most votes from the fans get to be captains. The captains then take turns selecting players. They can pick any player, regardless of conference.

Under this scenario we would discover the following:

  • Which players are most valued by their peers.
  • Which players are least valued or liked. (Can you say dissed?)
  • Which captains are so stupid they forget to pick a point guard.

Unlike almost every other aspect of all-star weekend, this would produce drama. Humor, too. Just let the captains have microphones during the selection period.

This would also inject a measure of justice. That over-the-hill superstar voted in as a starter would not only not start, he would likely end up being picked late, maybe last.

If we absolutely must have coaches — and I say we don’t — they could still pick the starters, make substitutions, get towels.

The pickup-game approach wouldn’t cure the Pro Bowl’s ills. For one thing, it would take too long to divide up rosters three or four times the size of basketball teams. But going pickup is a natural, even traditional, way to organize a competitive basketball game.

Why not give it a try?

Ed Cohen

Feb
02

The Steelers’ first touchdown, on a scramble by QB Ben Roethlisberger, was disallowed after the Cardinals challenged. The refs decided the replays showed that Big Ben’s knee was down before the ball pierced the imaginary plane rising up from the front of the goal line. The Steelers had to settle for a a field goal.

You can see the play among the game highlights. The knee-down ruling was probably right.

But during the play and in all the scrutiny of the replays, which employed sophisticated zooming technology worthy of the CIA, an obvious rule violation went uncalled and unnoticed, or at least uncommented upon by the megabucks-earning TV announcers.

Here it is:

On the play, Roethlisberger is hit at the two and would have been stopped well short of the goal line, except that at the 1, Steelers center Justin Hartwig wrapped his arms around the quaterback and tried to throw him into the endzone. He almost succeeded. Unfortunately, this is against the rules.

This is from the NFL’s own online digest of its rules. The very first sentence under the heading “Use of Hands, Arms and Body” reads:

“No player on offense may assist a runner except by blocking for him.”

Hartwig wasn’t blocking for Roethlisberger, he was attempting to throw him.

It’s fairly common for a blocker to push a pile that has a teammate carrying the ball somewhere within it. That makes it tough to call — was the guy pushing a defender or a teammate? But in this case, the foul could not have been more obvious.

The problem was that everyone had their eyes on the ball and the goal line and didn’t pay any attention to what Hartwig was doing.

Ed Cohen

Jan
30

How about the URL, domwis? It’s Wisdom spelled inside out

And that’s kind of the point of this blog.

It’s the place to play iconoclast, puncture the conventional wisdom, span the globe, and point out the constant variety of errors and opportunities for improvement in the world of sports.

Ed Cohen