By Robert Weintraub
There's a piece of popular entertainment out there far scarier than even the Jacksonville Jaguars' offense. It's a book called "Command and Control," by the superb reporter Eric Schlosser (he also wrote "Fast Food Nation," which turned everyone who read it into a vegetarian, at least for a while).
In the book, Schlosser recounts the literally thousands of accidents involved with our nation's nuclear stockpile. From bombs mistakenly dropped from planes to weather balloons pushing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of a missile exchange to simple screw-ups by wage slaves working in the silos, "Command and Control" is several hundred pages of nightmare scenarios, narrowly averted.
Most folks are at least dimly aware of the idea that it takes lots of parts working in perfect harmony to make a nuclear device explode. What becomes clear from reading the book is how the same thing applies to keeping them from going off once operational.
Naturally, I equated these facts to football, because that's how my (note: possibly disturbed) mind works.
The bomb itself is akin to defenses across the league. Regularly stopping an opponent from scoring is difficult in this day and age, and it requires attention to detail and strict discipline to avoid being scored upon. Still, the essential function of the bomb is to destroy, and it is far easier to make that happen than it is to create successful plays.
The offense, for all the advantages granted it by the rulebook, the ever more up tempo and spread out attacks and the drift of great athletes to quarterback the last few years, is nevertheless incredibly susceptible to disruption. All it takes is a single weak link in the command and control chain -- a lineman sets up a few inches too high, the running back is half a step slow to the hole, the wideout runs eleven and a half yards instead of twelve before sharply cutting left, the quarterback delivers the pass a foot lower than optimal -- and, suddenly, it's punting time.
I was particularly struck by this after watching my Cincinnati Bengals spin their wheels in futility against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. Naturally, all the blame went to quarterback Andy Dalton, because quarterbacks get all the blame (and credit), to the point where Bengals beat writer Joe Reedy's Twitter feed blew up with fans demanding Dalton be benched.
Interestingly, head coach Marvin Lewis said immediately after the game that he wanted to check the tape before laying it on the Red Rifle, and the next day told the media he was glad he did, because much of the ineptitude wasn't Dalton's fault.
Put the game under the microscope, watch the isotope particles bounce, and you see why.
Take this play. A called bubble screen to Mohamed Sanu is disrupted when blockers Jermaine Gresham and Anthony Collins take poor angles trying to get into space and get to their assigned man. Basically, they get in Sanu's way. Dalton is forced to pull down the pass, managing to get it to him far too late for Sanu to accomplish anything on the play.
Or like here, when a poor snap throws off the timing of a planned seam route, resulting in Dalton scrambling and inevitably fumbling.
Sometimes, the Browns coverage was excellent on the called routes and the Bengals young wideouts don't break off to help Dalton.
Even a star like AJ Green was off. Here, he rounds off his route rather than sharply getting inside of the man ("crossing his face" in football terminology) guarding him, Joe Haden. Haden forces Dalton to throw one low and uncatchable.
This isn't to exonerate Dalton completely -- sometimes he simply uncorked craptastic throws, like this one.
Cincinnati's ground game was, if anything, even more susceptible to failed assignments and poor execution. As left tackle Andrew Whitworth said after the game, "We had two plays where half the people know what is happening, half the people don't."
This appears to be one of them. In the second quarter, the Bengals were trailing 7-3 but driving to take the lead when Lewis elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 deep in Browns territory. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the best in the NFL last season at converting on third (and fourth)-and-short, but when the Browns shoot a linebacker into the A gap, the Bengals line gets kerfuzzled. Whitworth, an upper-echelon lineman, scarcely touches D'Qwell Jackson before turning his attention to his left, where the lead blocker has already taken care of his business.
Jackson, unhindered, makes the stop, and the Bengals botch a promising opportunity to score.
So while Dalton wasn't good, he wasn't completely culpable, either. That puts him pretty much in the majority of quarterbacks on any given Sunday. Unlike the country at large that obsesses over the league, the NFL is all middle class. The one-percenters that laud it over the rest, like Peyton Manning, are special because of their ability to keep the complex safeguards that keep plays from blowing up humming smoothly. He's a Michelangelo at two aspects of the game -- ensuring all his teammates know where to go on any particular play, and finding where the defense's weakest link in its quality control operation lies.
Manning, you might say, is the man with the codes, the keeper of the nuclear football.
For as much football as I (and you) have watched over my lifetime, I have never harbored even the slightest inkling that I really know what's going on during the games at the finely detailed level required to understand this savage ballet. While I am pretty sure I could take over a baseball team tomorrow and pilot it to a record approaching .500, I'm not sure I could even diagram a functional NFL play, much less design a playbook and then teach it to my team.
Those playbooks might as well be, well, a nuclear physics textbook.
Thus I have a newfound appreciation for the likes of Bill Belichick -- and his coordinators and position coaches too -- after reading "Command and Control." In the book, the infamous Air Force general Curtis LeMay comes off as the Belichick of the Strategic Air Command (and certainly both men were gruff, to put it mildly). When LeMay took over the nation's nuclear arsenal, back when bombers delivered them instead of ICBMs, the operation was slipshod and rife with lax security measures (a 4-12 team). LeMay fired (waived) a multitude of officers, instituted a long and inflexible system of procedures (playbook), and had his flyboys train endlessly, giving them all sorts of potential, if remote, scenarios to simulate (training camp).
According to Schlosser, the reforms LeMay insisted upon saved countless lives (won Super Bowls).
The upshot is, while we all know intellectually that football is the truest of all team sports, our lizard brains have been conditioned to put everything on the quarterback. So while stipulating that quarterback is the most important position in sports, and you can't win without good play at the position, blah blah blah, I'm calling for a moratorium on the endless blather from the chattering class about quarterbacks, and the constant charting of their decency or suckitude.
I'll save everyone the time -- Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers are great, and everyone else, save Tebow, is in a constantly shifting morass behind them. Now let's all move on to more interesting topics.
I realize this has about as much chance of happening as a global nuclear freeze, but consider this my No Nukes concert.