Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the Death of Conservative Football

So there was this moment, a few years back, when some members of the Penn State coaching staff jetted down to Texas to check out the scheme that the Longhorns had devised for a quarterback named Vince Young. It was one of those things that seemed silly and desperate at the time, but it essentially turned the entire Penn State program around; that next season, in 2005, Michael Robinson essentially became Vince Young Lite, an elusive quarterback with a gift for making plays out in space, and Penn State became something completely different. It was, I would like to think, Joe Paterno's concession to evolution. Even if his sartorial choices remain stubborn and steadfast, his brain is more elastic than you might think.

I thought about that on Saturday night, as I watched Ohio State, ever cautious, fritter away a football game in the final minutes. I thought about that this afternoon, as I read the postmortems and the piled-on critiques of Tresselball, which more informed critics than me* are now condeming to obsolescence. The consensus seems to be that you can't play this way anymore, that it is impossible to button up your sweater vest to the neck and still win football games. And I tend to agree with this. And I tend to think that, for the most part, this is a good thing.

One of the things I love about football is that it is the sport whose evolution seems the most consistently visible; when you watch a game from 1982, it appears as if everything is happening in slow motion. Football is liberal, but the culture of football is also relentlessly conservative.** And that contrast is what makes the game so much greater than any other sport. And so as boring as it may be, there is something to be said for the basic tenets of Tresselball, for the notion that careful play and a lack of mistakes and ball control and simple execution can win football games over more talented teams. That, after all, is the game I grew up watching; that's the essence of the old Joe Paterno, the Paterno of a pre-Vince Young world. This is the Paterno who was not afraid to run the fullback dive into a cloud of dust on first down...and on second down...and occasionally on third down. This is the Paterno who threw downfield once each Olympiad, the Paterno whose teams won games they had no business winning simply by hitting hard and hoarding the ball and recruiting a great punter and relying on a quarterback who would have trouble these days starting for most Florida high-school teams. "We're never going to see that Woody Hayes-, Bo Schembechler- style of football again, that run-first mentality," wrote Bill Walsh several years ago, and while I know he is right, I kind of hope he's wrong. Because football is about contrast. Because it's about the endless conflict between conservatism and liberalism. Because when it's done well, there's still something beautiful about a cloud of dust.

*And I should say, I happen to find Smart Football an intriguing website, even if that dude once referred to a column of mine as "laughably abysmal." At least he found it funny, I guess.
**For more on this concept, I recommend you buy this book.

(Photo: Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

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