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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sam Coleridge Goes to the Superbowl

an exercise in deep reading


So, as I am sure everyone knows, there has been no small squall over "the play" that ended the Superbowl, Sunday last. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has taken on a lot of abuse for the call that resulted in an interception and a victory for the Patriots: the most commonly uttered seven-word phrase in English today is "the dumbest play in Super Bowl history." Even I, at first glance, was questioning, "Why in the world didn't you run it?!?!" Though, quickly enough, I did come up with one possibility: Seattle had only one time-out in pocket, and three downs to get into the end zone. Calling a pass play on one of the first two downs (which would either result in a score or an incompletion) would save the time out for if a called running play fails to get in. If you ran on the first play, defense would know the odds of a pass play on the next would be much higher.

Admittedly, that is not the strongest of arguments; but, it is an argument. Since then I have found out a bit more information.

1. Carroll has stated that the package that was on the field at the time was not a run package. So calling a pass play was actually playing to the strengths of the players on the field. Calling a run play would have been and odds-off play.

2. Over the course of the season, Seattle handed the ball to Lynch six times when on the 1-yard line. He made into the endzone a sum total of once. So calling a running play with Lynch would again have been an odds-off play.

Let's add to those details two more that should have been apparent to anyone with some football acumen immediately following the play.

3. When they lined up, the coverage was man, advantageous to the called rub-off. Butler – the man who intercepted the pass – was set up behind another defender. There was every reason for Russell Wilson to believe the called play would be a success, no reason for him to change the play at the line. The receiver (Lockette) would most assuredly make the goal line unimpeded.

4. If Wilson had thrown the ball at the Lockett'e chest, or slightly behind him, where no one but Lockette could have gotten it (a very familiar phrase in the world of football passing), it was a simple play. Instead, Wilson lead Lockette, leaving the ball open for an interception by a defender jumping the play.

Let's stop right there and give a moment to the wonderfulness that is Pete Carroll as head coach. What are two things that Pete has not (to my knowledge) and probably will never say about that play? (1) "We didn't give it to Lynch because for some reason Lynch has been unable to score from the 1-yard line this year"; and (2) "If Wilson had thrown the ball where only Lockett could catch it, it would have been a touchdown." Instead, he quietly threw himself under the bus for what was, once the dust settles, a good call. (Not a brilliant call; there was not need for brilliant call; but a good call. Though, as a friend pointed out, had the catch been made the call probably would have been called brilliant.)

Let's add one more point of fact:

5. In the immediately-after-the-game interview with Michelle Tafoya (who, by the way, I think is a terrible sideline reporter; she is too Good Morning America in her approach), Butler said – and this is not direct quote but pretty close – that football was all about preparation. He recognized the rub-off play when Seattle lined up. He knew what was going to happen, and knew it because he did his homework. All that needed then was the guts to lay it out and go for it, which he did. He got to the ball a half of a second before Lockette.

To use yet another football phrase, one normally used in situations such as those where a DB tackles the running back while the hand-off is still being executed, Butler blew up the play. And this is what is being lost in the flailing of Pete Carroll. Butler – an undrafted rookie – made a brilliant play: which means also he took a huge gamble. In truth, if Wilson had thrown the ball behind Lockette, where only Lockette could have gotten it, Butler would have flown right by him (since he had committed himself to jumping the play), and Lockette would have scored.


Two points here.

First. My original thought on writing about this play was to focus on the overwhelming negativity that has resulted. Rather than talk about how Butler blew up the play, rather than talk about how that game was one of the best games of the year, and very probably one of the best Super Bowls ever, the sports world has exploded into a discourse of negativity and blame. The whole of it made me think about an interview I heard on NPR. (For transparency's sake: no, I do not normally listen to interviews on NPR; I was flipping through the dial in the truck and it caught my ear.) The interview was with Dana Boyd, talking about her book It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. What I heard of it was a fascinating discussion.

One part was Boyd talking about how U.S. culture has turned into a culture of negativity (and so in turn likewise the culture of social networking). The primary energies are toward tearing down, not building up. Her primary example was reality TV, which is dominantly made of shows of people who are put forward for the purpose of ridicule, mockery, and general "will you look at those idjits." I think it is an easy jump to see how television across the board is based on that dynamic.[FN] My original idea on writing this bit was to follow that train of thought. But, in truth, I have not yet bought Boyd's book, and I could not on my own go as far with it as I would have liked.

[FN] Indeed, I would currently argue that the primary energies behind socially conscious literature, that kind of literature that leads to anthologies of poetry about the oppressed plight of whatever newly coined, sexually-defined U.S. sub-class, or whatever other political group has blipped into the radar of social activism, are not at all liberatory but generated primarily out of and used to to the ends of that culture of negativity. The discourse that one sees on these issues in social media is much to the case: even, if not especially, the discourse that the speakers believe is toward the positive. But that is another discussion.

Second. However, after discarding that first idea (two days ago, in fact), there came to me (today) another. Much more fruitful; very much within the domain of this blog. Like the first, it is still about the discourse that surrounds that play.

I want to go back to an excerpt from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria which I brought into my critical review of Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars, a few posts (and a few months) ago. That I will again present this large excerpt should speak something how much it has invaded my thoughts. But also it should speak something of how important an idea is to be found in it as regards creative writing. Here it is, in full:

In the course of my lectures, I had occasion to point out the almost faultless position and choice of words, in Mr. Pope's original compositions, particularly in his satires and moral essays, for the purpose of comparing them with his translation of Homer, which I do not stand alone in regarding them as the main source of our pseudo-poetic diction. [. . .] Among other passages, I analyzed sentence by sentence, and almost word by word, the popular lines,
          As when the moon, resplendent lamp of light, &c.
[. . .]. The impression on the audience in general was sudden and evident: and a number of enlightened and highly educated individuals, who at different times afterwards addressed me on the subject, expressed their wonder, that truth so obvious should not have struck them before; but at the same time acknowledged (so much had they been accustomed, in reading poetry, to receive pleasure from the separate images and phrases successively, without asking themselves whether the collective meaning was sense or nonsense) that they might in all probability have read the same passage again twenty times with undiminished admiration, and without once reflecting, that ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφι σελήνην φείνετ ἀριπρεπέα (i.e., the stars around, or near the full moon, shine pre-eminently bright) conveys a just and happy image of a moonlight sky: while it is difficult to determine whether in the lines,
          Around her throne the vivid planets roll,
          And stars unnumber'd gild the glowing pole, [FN1]
the sense, or the diction be the more absurd.

As I said the first time, the central phrase is: "so much had they been accustomed, in reading poetry, to receive pleasure from the separate images and phrases successively, without asking themselves whether the collective meaning was sense or nonsense."

Listening to the discourse on the game, this excerpt, and the idea it puts forward, seems ever-present. Nearly every time I have heard (or read) discourse on the play – especially when out of the mouths of Joe Public – that discourse has been wholly oriented through a lens that constricted the game to one play (ignoring everything that preceded and that might follow) and to false conceptions (ignoring the information that would influence the decision making leading up to and during the play). In the manner of the readers of which Coleridge speaks above, they were looking at a single phrase, not collective meaning.

One of the reasons Bill Belichick – if not the primary reason – is a brilliant coach is because he never thinks the game one play at a time. He sees every play within the larger, collective meaning: that of a series of downs seeking a new first down; that of a of a drive; of a quarter, a half, a game: that is, as an organic whole, crafted out of the medium of this particular team against that particular team on this particular day. Indeed, his vision extends not just to the game but to the season as a whole, as can be seen in his willingness to minimize the role (if not bench) a recently successful player, forsaking short-term benefits for the ends of long-term benefit.

(If you want another reason why Belichick is such a great coach, look back to an undrafted rookie saying in post-game "football is all about preparation; I knew from the formation that it was going to be a rub-off.")

There were many reasons not to have handed the ball to Lynch. But to understand those reasons, you have look beyond the single play, and see the game as an organic whole. There is no one play that will win a team a game. There are no plays that have a 100% guarantee of success [FN]: even victory formation occasionally has its hitches. To coach football, to call plays, is to think the game in terms of maximizing the chance for victory. And understanding how to maximize the chance for victory – to understand maximizing the chance for writing something brilliant – requires thinking not in terms of the single play – not in terms of single lines or tropes or playing with words – but in terms of the game as a whole.

[FN] I would argue that the success of the NBA is wholly dependent upon appealing to a culture that thinks only in the moment. The way the games are called on national TV, they way highlights are presented on sports news, most strongly the way the audience cheers the most vociferously for a dunk, when a dunk is probably one of the least meaningful events in a game when viewed as a whole – for sure it is less meaningful than the steal or missed asignment or botched pass that created the opportunity for the dunk – all speak to appealing to momentary clevernesses, and not to an audience interested in the game at a more sophisticated level. But that too is nother discussion: though one still directly related to creative writing.

There were reasons not to call Lynch's number, even though he had 102 yards on the day. The wrong formation was on the field for a 1-yard run: to call a run would decrease the odds of success. Lynch seems unable this year to punch a ball in from the 1-yard line (and if you do not think that Carroll was wholly aware of that fact, you are deluded): thus, again, such a call would have had a decreased odds of success. But to understand the game in terms of "odds of success" means looking beyond the moment.

There were also reasons to call the play. (I have heard some from analysts, though I won't go into them here.) None of them are legitimate if you look at the play in terms only of a single play. Which is the equally important inverse of Coleridge's point, above. You will decreasewill decrease – the success and sophistication of a writing endeavor by thinking the work in terms of a string of textual moments, of lines, of sentences, of plays. To understand Pete Carroll's decision making (to engage Coleridge's "Christabel"; to have written "Christabel") requires understanding the game beyond the framework of a single play. Indeed, like bad reading (as of which Coleridge speaks), and like bad writing (to which goes Coleridge's point), most people's text about "the worst call in Super Bowl history" is defined by a single and wholly conventional trope: "beast mode."


I need something with which to close, so I am going to go with something I have been saving for a long time. A little something from personal experience.

Most people who play chess (or other games) cannot think ahead but one or two moves. Whether this is a question of ability or a question of training is irrelevant for the moment. But it is true. Most people cannot (or do not) think beyond one move ahead in chess. Which a little tidbit that relates to type As on the highway: that particular brand of idjit that wails on their high beams for you to get out of their way in the left-most lane, even when there is enough traffic on the road that the left-most lane is not going all that much faster than the speed limit.

I am convinced that those people, when you do finally let them by, accelerate past you (in their little show of phallic presence), see the car that is not twenty yards ahead in the same lane, and go, "Holy @#*$%! There's another one?!?!!"

1 comment:

  1. Wholly on the football side, friend Stephen gave me this from the NYT:

    So, to make it not wholly on the football side, this can be tied in to the idea of the symbolic . . . .