Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On Football and Fixed Impressions

Until today, I had never heard of Tim Ruskell; then again, I suppose he could say he never heard of me, either. Here is who Tim Ruskell is not: The late moderator of Meet the Press, a voice-over actor on Prairie Home Companion, a country singer and/or the author of a Scandinavian detective novel. According to SI's prolific football writer, Peter King, Ruskell is the president of football operations for the Seattle Seahawks, and according to King, Tim Ruskell had some very nice things to say about a diminutive young receiver named Deon Butler, who played at Penn State and now may be playing himself into a prominent role with the Seahawks. All of that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, since I watched Deon Butler scamper about for four years while bigger and stronger defensive backs attempted to render him into a pancake.

However, Ruskell also said this: "He didn't have great stats in college because Penn State's obviously not a passing school."

Now, I've stated in the past that I refuse to serve as a knee-jerk defender of my alma mater's football program; I also think the notion of calling an offense the "Spread HD," as Penn State has done, sounds like something cooked up over riblets at a confab of Best Buy regional managers. However, this quote made me wonder, as I often do, about the vagaries of scouting and recruiting and drafting, and about how a reputation is often shaped, even in this modern age of quantification and statistical precision, by a single impression.

Ruskell's impression, obviously, is that Penn State is not a passing school. And there is historical merit in his statement, given that someone once made up golf balls with Joe Paterno's face on them and pronounced they were guaranteed to run up the middle three out of four times; given that, until Penn State won its first national championship, the most famous sequence in school history was marked by a refusal to pass on a four-and-out goal-line series against Alabama; given that for two years in the 00's, Penn State was quarterbacked by a tragic figure named Anthony Morelli, who seemed determined to restore the old ways by displaying the mobility of Y.A. Tittle. However, this is not really so true at all anymore: It wouldn't take much of an effort to note the recent trajectory of the Penn State offense, nor to realize that three players on the 2008 team--including Butler himself--finished their careers among the most prolific receivers in school history. Last year, Penn State's quarterback, Daryll Clark, threw 321 passes. This was tied for 66th in Division I-A, which may not seem like much, but it was more than Oklahoma State's Zak Robinson (314), and more than Tim Tebow (298). This year, it appears Clark will pass with reckless abandon; last week, he threw for more than 350 yards, and Penn State, easing its way into modernity, continued to defy its own history.

You would think a football operations guy should notice such things, that they should be more attuned to the subtleties of the college game--or at the very least, they should be impacted by Penn State's orchestrated marketing campaign, which seems to claim that their spread offense can be viewed more clearly on cable systems nationwide. But maybe--and I realize I'm kind of contradicting myself from day to day here--I'm overestimating the science involved. Maybe at some level, a football guy is so harried and so busy, his life such an endless cycle of bodies in uniform that he doesn't see anything more objectively than the rest of us. Maybe we're all slaves to our own fixed impressions, in which case LaGarrette Blount could probably rescue a roomful of nuns from a burning convent and he'd probably still drop to round five.

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