NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

College Football Is More Fun, the NFL Is More Complex
The stadium scene.
Jan. 11 2011 2:59 PM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Head coach Rex Ryan.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan

Belichick and Ryan in loincloths? With all due respect to their respective coaching genius, ewwwwwww. How about a couple of those inflatable sumo suits? Ryan might even need one now that his much-publicized lap-band surgery has left him looking trimmer. I'd give Sexy Rexy the edge on the tachi-ai, but you never know when Spygate Bill will resort to a kinjite.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

Josh, I think you identified one of the main reasons for the comparative stodginess of the NFL vis-à-vis college. The talent gap between the best and worst players on a college football field is far wider than in the pros. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Cam Newton does indeed look freakishly outsize and athletic compared to the Kappa Delts against whom he has been playing. And if you think Newton has been a subdivision unto himself in the Football Bowl Subdivision, check out this video of him playing for the Texas junior college in which he enrolled after his educational plans didn't work out at the University of Florida. It's reminiscent of the jaw-dropping high-school footage of Marcus Dupree that my friend Jonathan Hock unearthed for his recent ESPN documentary The Best That Never Was. In the NFL, though, does Newton still look "preposterously proportioned"—or even more athletically gifted—than Ben Roethlisberger, who himself goes 6-foot-5, 240 and could lay out a linebacker if he were allowed? I'd say no.

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According to the NCAA, eight out of 10,000 football football-playing high-school boys will be drafted into the NFL. For college seniors, that number is a still-improbable 1 out of 50. Auburn and Oregon are, obviously, elite programs. Based on recent drafts, I'd guess that 15 or 20 of the players on the field in Glendale last night will eventually get to an NFL camp. Of that select number, a single handful is likely to have careers longer than, say, three seasons. Of that group, maybe one will be a Pro Bowl regular.

The point is that athletes whose talents looked celestial in college look very terrestrial in the NFL, where, as Nate can tell us, every athlete is exceptional. We don't have the space to recount the names of college stars who busted in the pros; a look at the list of Heisman Trophy winners, to which Newton's name was recently added, should suffice. (Wait. No one won it in 2005?) It's not obvious to untrained eyes, but the NFL game is measurably faster and far more precise than the college game. As Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden explains, "decisions have to be made much more quickly, holes close instantly, and passes are threaded into smaller spots."

So if we stipulate that the collective athletic differences among the best college teams is already fairly narrow, but that the difference between the "best" and "second-best" player on the field is often readily apparent and exploitable, what happens when the collective differences are microscopic and the gap between best and second best is often imperceptible? 1. Cam Newton could wind up looking more like David Garrard than LeBron James. 2. The Seahawks beat the Saints. 3. A lot of the cool, fun, innovative stuff that works so well in college is a nonstarter.

But it's not fair to say that NFL offenses are boring. Teams have been implementing at least components of the "spread offense" that's been popular in college in recent years, positioning four or more receivers from one sideline to the other, often with an empty backfield. That's partly because NFL defenses have grown faster and more sophisticated, their players better able to predict and respond to conventional offensive tactics, which then require tactical responses of their own. But as a full-fledged strategy, the sorts of gimmicks we saw last night just won't fly on a field where the players are not only athletically superior but also multimillion-dollar assets, not unpaid temps. So, no, letting Cam Newton take the snap and plunge into the line or sprint sideways on an run-pitch-pass option isn't wise for his or his employer's long-term health. Letting your punter pass to your kicker for a two-point conversion, which Oregon did last night, also isn't worth the risk. Forget whether such a play stands a Yepremian's chance in hell of succeeding. Those guys get paid a lot of money, too.

I'll grant—and back me up here, Nate—that there is another, more personal reason why the NFL way can appear stodgier than the college game. NFL players talk privately about how playing college football, even for vein-popping coaches, was more fun than playing professionally. It's not just the workaday grind. The NFL is a coaches' league. As we were discussing yesterday, perfection is the absurd standard. And perfection is approached through hours of numbing repetition, study, and more repetition. Because they worry about the other team, because their jobs depend, or at least are perceived to depend, on the appearance of tactical genius, and simply because they can, NFL coaches design ever more complex formations, plays, progressions, and responses. Players are expected to execute them with mathematical precision. Fun is not a priority. So schemes like Oregon's or Auburn's that rely heavily on particular skills—78-rpm play-calling; a single, transcendent athlete—leave lots of room for freelancing. Do that in the NFL and not only might you not succeed, you might be out of a job. Consider Michael Vick. His success in 2010 has been attributed to (finally) combining his Newtonian improvisational talents with more conventional quarterbacking skills.

This isn't to say that college coaches aren't anal control freaks. But to succeed in college football is to understand the limitations of your work force. Coaches know their players are transient. They also recognize that, no matter how many Benjamins agents and boosters slip into the palms of likely future pros, they're not pros yet. They have other stuff to do during the day, most know they won't be doing this for a living, they're willing to buy into rah-rah motivational techniques, and they're awfully young and inexperienced. Give a team of 80 college kids a playbook as complex as the simplest in the NFL and their helmets will pop off.

I'd venture that college coaches are more willing to allow their players at least a smidge more fun than their NFL counterparts. Why not? Surely they recognize that the players can't accomplish the perfection that a Belichick or a Mayock would expect. So why not send in a Statue of Liberty play? Why not let the punter run for his life—and don't act afterward as if he sold state secrets to the Russians. Why not have a little fun?

So here's what I'd like to see this weekend: the entire Chicago Bears team in DayGlo black jerseys and orange pants; Vince Wolfork running an option pitch to Tom Brady, who's wearing a jersey that says "Gisele's Bitch" on the back instead of his name; Ben Roethlisberger lined up at wide receiver dressed in a Troy Polamalu wig and a motorcycle helmet; and Aaron Rodgers lifting his jersey after a touchdown to reveal a T-shirt that reads, "How's Retirement, Jackass?"

Tom, what are your National Football League Divisional Playoffs hopes and dreams?

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