Monday, August 29, 2011

The Divide Between Analysis and Understanding

As America gets reacquainted with the NFL, there are plenty of people having live fantasy drafts over a few beers, rummaging stores for grills in order to tailgate and praying that their preachers speed up Sunday services for the next five months.

We already know what has made the NFL king of American entertainment over the last decade-plus; a few seasons of parity, a more passer-friendly style of play (though not exactly better) and the heavy dependence on the game for live viewing by partner TV networks. The latter, which provides the league revenue streams and advertising beyond comprehension, has been the bread and butter for the NFL since the 1960s under the stewardship of the late commissioner, Pete Rozelle.

With talk about the league pitching an additional eight-game Thursday night package to networks and some scheduling additions made by current league partners, there’s more to consume for the pigskin fan than ever before. 

However, one grossly overlooked aspect of this larger landscape for the NFL is that whether they care to admit so or not, there are still millions of fans that are not as savvy about every nuance of the game of football. [Honestly, the same goes for us media folks.]

Think of how many times Monday Night Football color commentators Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden give the breakdown of a play and the terminology they use will go over your head. Even for those who know that there are multiple names and variations of the same football plays, it’s not easy to keep up with what ‘Jaws’, ‘Chucky’ or any commentator that played or coached will spit out.

With the bandwidth for programming that networks like ESPN and even the league’s own network possess, there’s plenty of room for a show that can actually explain what in the hell these commentators and analysts are talking about. Who needs another hour of highlight reels or fantasy football uber-analysis when there can be a program or two that will demonstrate what a dig route is or why there’s a need to have different personnel for defensive schemes.

Courtesy of Fort Hayes State Univ.

For those who have known and loved football for years, a show like this can be a way of refining, if not outright testing, your knowledge of the game. Sure, you might have a Master’s in Madden Football and you probably like to debate at the water cooler, but there’s a good chance that you may have thought the Wildcat formation was invented four years ago (single-wing, anyone?). 

Fans who have been introduced to the game in recent years would get a better sense of what makes the superstars so respected and popular. Many came on board because they kept hearing about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and numerous fantasy football references throughout pop culture. Yet, save for those hackneyed company lines about their greatness – they’re winners, what would their teams be like without them, etc. – there is a lack of understanding what it took for those players to become future first-ballot Hall of Famers. Why? Because explaining the craft is too long for advertising copy.

That guy looks MAD familiar!

Last year while live tweeting a Monday Night Football broadcast, I suggested that the league’s broadcasting partners should actually try teaching the game a bit. I received a few replies, stating that it wouldn’t be a good idea because it’s not the responsibility of said partners – ESPN, FOX, CBS and NBC – to explain anything, at least during the game.

Yet, this isn’t about the guys in the booth explaining each intricate detail as if this is “Football for Dummies”. While it’s not impossible, it would ignore the primary purpose to their jobs; to speak on the game as it happens to a rabid audience.

However, when you look through ESPNews’ programming slate and see nothing but “Highlight Express” or wonder if the over-the-air networks are really serving us with those ginormous pregame shows, it’s not unfathomable to see that there’s room to take a step back and educate people on the game with more than telestrators and corporate-sponsored studio ‘fields’.

The first day that we are 'Back to Football', we can use something new, can't we?

Maybe this program is a once-a-week in-season affair a la Showtime’s (formerly HBO's) Inside the NFL or those weekly fantasy sports shows on your local sports network. Throughout the season, the hosts – experienced television former NFL players and coaches – can use game and/or practice footage combined with live demonstrations from a local semi-pro or high school team to illustrate their points. How cool would it be to see the contrast between how an offensive line works for a pocket passer and a mobile quarterback? The hair-splitting differences between the brilliance of running backs Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson? The real reasons why some teams play a 3-4 defense and a 4-3?

It may sound like one of those instructional tapes that you might buy for middle school-aged kids playing Pop Warner football. Yet, every season, people ask this Scribe how can they best learn the game in order to keep up with television analysis that continually goes over their heads. If this kind of program is crafted properly, it can be more than ‘suggested reading’ from the syllabus. It can be a great hors d'oeuvre before the football feast us pigskin gluttons scarf down every weekend.

Say What?!?!: In writing this post, an old one came to mind. Though younger generations have only come to know John Madden as the guy whose name graces the popular video game, he was once upon a time a great coach and the forefather to the sport’s color commentary. Whether some like it or not, with his retirement from the booth after the 2008 season, his approach to explaining the game to fans (though seemingly ineffective as the years went on) is sorely lacking these days.


mindpinball said...


Great post, and a great idea. My wife has only recently begun to watch football games seriously (i.e. whenever the Steelers play), and she has many questions about the rules. While I have watched many a game over the years, I don't always have all the answers, so a show like that would be really helpful for fans like me to bone up on the nuances of the game and for her to understand the basics a bit better.

Unfortunately, it probably won't ever happen...

@CeeDeeA said...

Nice post! I think this is a great idea as well.

The format for a pilot I shot included a "special interest" segment, which was in this first episode to teach the shotgun formation. It was mainly geared toward women, but I had said during our initial discussions that men might benefit as well.

So if it ever sees the light of day, we might have to have you on :-)

Jason Clinkscales said...

@mindpinball I think as long as the league's partners continue to preach to the converted - despite occasionally bragging about the new viewers the NFL gets year after year - it may not happen. However, there's far too much bandwidth for it to not work. With that said... @CeeDeeA has the right idea. Sometimes, it's just easier to do it yourself.