How To Watch Football
THE PLAYERS are standing stiffly at attention. The crowd has risen. It’s a solemn moment in the stadium. Suddenly, then, that’s over and a whistle shrills. The figures down on the field relax and become real again.
The crowd, too, finds its voice and begins to bark encouragement.
“Let’s go, team!”
“Tear into ’em, team!”
“Fight! Fight! Fight !” the rooters yell.
Napoleon summarized all military strategy in a single brief command: “Get the most men there first!”
That’s what all football teams are trying to do—get more men to the point of attack than the other team. And all that activity down on the field before the ball is put into play— the huddles, the shifts and intricate formations—is designed with the ultimate object of converging more men at the point of attack and thus overwhelming the enemy.
The actual operation of the game is simple. The teams line up on the offensive and defensive as set down in the rules. The ball is snapped. The team in possession tries to open an avenue for the ball-carrier. The defense tries to prevent him from gaining ground. The ball-carrier may advance the ball by carrying it through the line or around the ends; by passing it forward or laterally, according to the rules; or by kicking it.
But the real science of football lies in what goes on before the ball is put into play. You may enjoy a game without knowing anything about this end of it, but your appreciation is only complete when you are aware of the strategy employed by the teams and understand why it worked out or why it failed.
The team that is every coach’s dream is one that is well grounded in the fundamentals of football and is smart besides. The fundamentals are running, bucking, passing, catching, kicking, blocking and tackling. If a team is strong in all these departments it will be hard to beat but it may be beaten. It may even be beaten by a team that is weak in one or more of these fundamentals, not by luck or by a fluke, and that is what provides the real drama in this great game. But the other team will have to be plenty smart and all we may hope to do is to show you how it can be smart.
Teams gain ground through power, speed or deception, and sophisticated football crowds know what style of attack to expect from a team the minute it steps on the field. If it is a team of heavy, aggressive players they know it will have power and will attempt to capitalize on it through a plunging, bruising type of attack. If such a team can gain through the line by steam-rollering over its opponents, it would be foolish to risk fumbles by throwing the ball around. Similarly, the same crowd expects a light team to open up the game by attempting to run the ends or by taking to the air with kicks and passes.
IF YOU know what “standard football” is, then you know how to watch a game intelligently. There is such a thing as “standard football,” but to play it successfully a team must have all-round strength. Sarnia Imperials, last year’s Dominion Champions, were such a team, possessing an exceptional kicker in Sterling, a line-smasher in Beach, some forward passing talent in the same man, and a fleet backfield
led by the flashy Perry. Defensively, the line was sound from end to end and was backed up by Beach, a really great defensive player.
This team came as close to playing “standard football” as any other team in the country and another name for it might be “zone football.” It never took chances in its own half of the field. With the wind in its favor it kicked on the first down anywhere this side of the centre field marker. If there was no wind blowing, or just a crossfield breeze, or even if the wind was blowing against it but only lightly, it kicked on the first or second down, probably figuring that if it waited until the third and last down and the kick was blocked it had put itself in a hole unnecessarily. It had plenty of confidence in its defense and was content to let the other team have possession of the ball as long as its own goal-line was not in immediate danger. It probably figured that the other team was using up its energy trying to advance the ball while deep in its own territory, with the danger of a costly fumble always present. «
The only time this team fired all its guns was when it had possession of the ball in its opponents’ half of the field. Even then it was cautious, using nothing in the midfield zone but straight bucks, cross bucks and spinners, plays in which the ball did not change hands more than once and the chances of a fumble were cut to the minimum. From inside the forty-yard line it used the big ground-gaining plays like forward passes and end runs — plays in which fumbles and interceptions are frequent—which might have resulted in scores or in placing them in a scoring position. But if the worst happened and it lost the ball, its goal-line was still in no great danger. In close on the last down it was content to try for field goals or single points rather than gamble on a touchdown or nothing. It is a highly conservative game, with the thumb down tight on the chance taking play, and to get anywhere with it a team must have a great deal of balanced strength.
It is a game that is perfect theoretically, but the team that adopts it must be nearly perfect, too.
A team that lacks balanced strength w'ould get
nowhere playing this type of football. It may be short on weight along the wing line, or without a kicker or a passer, but if it is alert and smart it can win games, though it won’t be by playing conservative football. Usually, too, it won’t get the breaks, for in football as in war the chances are on the side of the heavy guns and the big battalions. This team must set out to turn its weakness into strength; which is merely another way of saying that lacking weight and power it must substitute speed or deception. Only rarely will you find a big team chock full of power that has speed also.
“For every notch of speed gained you must sacrifice a corresponding degree of power,” Frank Shaughnessy used to say.
When he had big teams at McGill their movements were always deliberate. They came into the line slowly, the backs took time to get set, and when they charged they hit with everything they had. When he had light teams their movements were always much sketchier. They were always aiming to get the jump on the opposition and speed was everything with them. But with the action so speeded up the ball-handling is much less certain, which accounts for many of the fumbles committed by light fast teams, leaving the spectator with the curious impression that bad luck seems always to be dogging them, though the truth is they are at a disadvantage from the start and are forced to take chances to offset the constant pressure exerted by a heavier team.
Last year’s St. Michael’s College team was an exceptionally light oufit for senior football and it lacked a kicker, yet it came awfully close to beating Sarnia, the best team in the country. Though outweighed about ten pounds to the man and outkicked by twenty-five yards in the exchanges, they were beaten only by a 19-12 score and they had the ball on Sarnia’s one-yard line, with another touchdown almost certain, when the final whistle blew. St. Mike’s had a standout passer in Marks and Coach Storen, this year’s coach at Western University, had built the team’s offensive around this good player. Now let’s see what happened.
St. Mike’s took the wildest kind of chances from first to last in that game. They played anything but orthodox football. When they might by any kind of reasoning have been expected to kick, they did the other thing; ran the ends or tried a forward pass. They tried twentyseven forward passes in that game and
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completed sixteen; which established some kind of a record for forward passing in this country and must compare favorably with the best passing efforts in the States. In the final quarter, behind in the score and playing desperately, they completed five consecutive passes for a touchdown. It was an astonishing exhibition and it was only possible because St. Mike’s realized that in straight football ability they didn’t rate with Sarnia. They knew, too, that the sting in their own attack was in their passes. So they departed entirely from all the rules of football and flung their passes high, wide and handsome. By playing cautiously and concentrating on a defense against the well organized and highly diversified Sarnia attack they might have kept the score down, but they would never have come so close to beating them.
Flere are some of the things a smart, alert team will do to offset a lack in offensive power. They will keep on top of the ball, following it like hound dogs, tirelessly and relentlessly, ready to pounce on it the moment it bounces around loose. They will line up fast and set their plays in motion quickly. Unless the opposition meets this speed with similar speed they will be caught off balance fifty per cent of the time. Getting an opponent off balance is a bigger advantage than you may suspect, as it’s comparatively easy to take a man out of the play, no matter how big he is, if he hasn’t dug himself in and set himself to meet your charge. A team sharpened to this razor edge will use plenty of sequence plays and will quick-kick often, which makes for heads-up football and numerous thrills for onlookers.
HP HIS is how a sequence play works. A signal is given, but instead of calling for one play only it calls for two and sometimes three consecutive plays. Let’s say it’s a simple sequence calling for two plays. The first play, which may be a plunge, will be run off as usual. Then there will be a quick line-up and the ball will come out on the second play without any further signal. The idea of the sequence is to catch the other team napping, waiting to hear a signal called
before getting set in their regular defensive positions.
The second half of a sequence is frequently what is known as a “sleeper play.” On a sleeper a player on the team in possession of the ball—usually a back who is a good passreceiver—lies fiat on the ground out toward the sideline where he won’t be noticed while the first play is being run off. As the ball is snapped on the second play he jumps up and sprints down the field to a position where he can take a forward pass uncovered. This particular play often ends in a touchdown, but is spoiled just as frequently by frantic partisan rooters who do everything but climb down on to the field in a wild effort to call attention to the “sleeper” hugging the grass.
The McGill team of a couple of years ago showed a nice variation of this play. After the first half of the sequence had been reeled off, a back started toward the sideline, peeling off his headgear as he went. It looked as though the usual substitution was about to be made and players of the other team watched him idly, glad of the opportunity for a breather. Suddenly, when he almost reached the sideline, the ball came out and he “turned the comer” and started up the field to receive a long forward pass.
A quick-kick is sometimes the second half of a sequence, though more often it is used as a straight play on the first or second down. The quarterback may have noticed that the safety man on the other team—the man who plays deep for kicks—has crept in close to help out the defense against forward passes. If he knows a kick is coming he can always get back in time to receive it. Flis tip-off to expect a kick is the knowledge that it is last down or the spectacle of the other team lining up in kick formation. On a quickkick he is not tipped off beforehand and the chances are that he will be caught flat-footed and the ball will sail far over his head.
The quick-kick is a big help to teams that are weak in the kicking department, though there are other ways of overcoming this disadvantage. The McGill team of 1931 was without a kicker, having lost its kicking back of the year before through graduation. Frank Shaughnessy surprised everybody by
having Darcy Doherty, up to this time a grand running back but no great shakes as a punter, take up the kicking duties. Doherty was instructed to send his low shooting drives into the open field. Ordinarily this would be dangerous, but the whole team was aware that the kick would go to the open side and the tacklers, going down under the kick, would always cover that side. The safety man never had a chance to take one of Doherty’s line drives on the fly, and after it struck the ground it would bound along merrily another fifteen or twenty yards. McGill got the benefit of every inch of ground there was to be got from those kicks, nullifying in large measure the other team’s advantage in this department.
Kicking is very important in the game the way it is today, perhaps too important, though apparently this feature always has paid off too heavily. They say that Tom Graydon, who used to be in charge of McGill teams back in the Gay Nineties, had two strings to his coaching bow. He would have his punter stand at midfield and the other backs somewhere near the goal-line. Tom would take up a position behind the catching backs. After each kick he would cup his hands to his mouth and shout, “Kick it little farther next time!”
Then he would go up the field and line up the tacklers for tackling practice. As the kicker got each kick away Tom would yell, “Folly up now, boys! Folly up!” He would need a little extra stuff if he were coaching today, but he had a grand idea to begin with.
Manoeuvring the Defense
T) UT the most interesting part of football, to the student, is what takes place before the ball is put into play. The quarterback usually is in complete command out there on the field. Like any other good general he is constantly looking over the field, studying the enemy, observing their defensive positions, remembering how they acted on the plays he has already tried, sifting the possibilities of every play at his command. His job is to call the play that will have the biggest chance of succeeding at the moment. The big idea behind every play, regardless of anything else, is to hit the defense at a point where it is unprotected. The best quarterbacks almost invariably keep selecting the right plays, mixing them up, shooting them at the unprotected spots, setting the stage for the big ground-gainers by manoeuvring the defense from one side of the field to the other or by luring it into a false sense of security.
Johnny Ferraro, the old Cornell captain who led the Hamilton Tigers last year, was smart at his job. Ferraro made a habit of staying out of the game entirely for the first ten minutes or so. From the sidelines he studied the other team’s defense, noticing exactly where every man stood and how he moved when the ball came out. When he finally entered the game he knew where the weak spots were in that defense and it is noteworthy that the Tiger offensive began to click the moment Ferraro came on.
Watch the quarterback and see if you can analyze his strategy. Sometimes it’s hard to tell just what he’s up to and, for that reason, don’t be too quick to razz him. He knows football or he wouldn’t be in there. If you think he’s an ape, look around you; there are enough in the stands to fill a hundred zoos. He has as instruments of deception the huddle, the shift, reverses and spinners to help him fool the enemy. They are also the features of the game that spectators find most confusing.
The huddle serves a triple purpose: it malíes sure that every player gets the signal; it prevents the other team from stealing it; and it provides an opportunity for talking things over. It is in the huddles, especially in the early stages of a game, that the quarterback learns the weaknesses along the ether team’s wing line, for his own linemen should be telling him the movements of opposing linemen and in which’ direction it is easiest to clear them.
The purpose of all shifts is to get the other team off balance. When the players come up to the line of scrimmage out of the huddle
the shift commences. Listen to the signals: “Hike—one—two—three—four.” On the word “Hike” the shift begins; the play itself may start on any of the succeeding numbers. Sometimes the ball will come out on what is known as a long count, say on the fourth number after the “Hike.” The other team will get used to that, catch the rhythm, and charge on the fourth number. A smart quarterback, noticing this, will inject a short count occasionally and have the ball come out on the third number. This will allow his team to beat the other fellow to the charge, not only on that occasion, but will have the effect of making the other team wary and hesitant about the exact moment to charge on subsequent plays. That fraction of a second will give his team the jump on the other team every time.
“If your straight plays won’t work, then your reverses will,” Frank Shaughnessy used to say to his quarterbacks. “If they’re stopping your straight plays it means they’re shifting. Use your reverses. Mix ’em up. Don’t let ’em get set.”
That’s the object of reverses and spinners, to anchor the defense, keep it from shifting. A reverse is just what its name implies: the exact reverse of a straight play. For example, on an end run, the backs swing out to the right if the play is going around that end, and the extra lineman is also on that side running interference. Everything points to the direction of the play once it has started and the defense shifts quickly to meet it. Now on a reverse from an end run, the pass, instead of going to the backs in motion to the right, is only faked in that direction, but actually goes to a back who has faked a start to the right but wheeled and come back fast around the left end. If the defense has shifted to the right, as it normally would after an end run has been used once or twice and the defense thinks it has identified the play, then it will be caught out of position and fooled completely. After that it will not be so quick to shift and the straight end run should have a better chance of succeeding.
A spinner has the same effect except that instead of going around the end it winds up in a quarterback sneak over or near the centre of the line. Two passes are faked on this play but the quarterback hangs on to the ball himself, spinning completely around and knifing through the line, which is usually pretty well broken up from the delay and the faked plunges. When properly executed there is a world of deception on the play and it is very pretty to watch. So you see the quarterback has a lot of stuff to work with, and if he is good he can make the task of winning games a lot easier for the rest of the team.
The Forward Pass
WHAT HOLDS your attention on a forward pass? Is it the ball? Probably it is. You have a hazy idea that two men went back to protect the passer, you saw him fade, then cut loose with the pass, saw the ball travel down the field and somebody leap for it, catch it or knock it down, or watched it ground harmlessly and the umpire wave it dead. But what about that pass receiver? How did he get away down and elude the defense?
Speaking generally, six men are eligible to receive a pass: the two men on the end of the line and the four backs. But since one of the backs must throw the ball, really only five men are eligible to receive it. If one man blocks that leaves only four to go down, and if two block it leaves only three.
A stand-out pass of last season, one that remained afterward in the mind of the spectator, occurred early in the MontrealArgo game in Varsity Stadium. Montreal recovered the ball on a fumble on the Argo forty-yard line shortly after the game opened. It was the first time they had been within scoring distance and everybody was on edge to see what kind of an attack they had. The ball came out to Bacon, the quarterback, and he waited there a moment, the ball in his hand, searching the Argo defense. Then he faded a few steps behind two blockers as the Argo wing line barged through, ran a few more steps to the right
without taking his eyes off the Argo defense, suddenly spun around and shot a bullet pass across field and fifteen yards ahead to Huck Welch, Montreal back, who seemed to rise from nowhere and pluck the ball out of the air as it passed over his shoulder.
Welch had started down the left side of the field, one of the men eligible to receive as pass and closely marked by the defense. But he had threaded his way down as if he were running a broken field—faking, decoying, changing pace, winding a serpentine path to his objective. When the pass came it led him a little so that he took it without changing stride. A defensive back was racing with him to intercept it, but the ball came on the side away from the Argo player, where he couldn’t reach it. The crowd stood up and yelled. It had seen a great pass and been thrilled by it.
The first rule of defensive play is to do your tackling on your opponents’ side of the scrimmage line. A fast and hard-charging line is tough to beat, for it is through on the play before it really gets started. A sound defense will not be fooled by any preliminary hocus-pocus. It will match speed with speed to get to the point of attack on time. And once there it will put enough whistle on its tackles to make them stick.
Do you know which official is which? That’s the referee trailing the team with the ball. The umpire follows the defending team. Scragging and offsides you can usually see from the stands. But when the whistle goes and a penalty is given for something you did not see you may be pretty sure it was for holding in the line or for going beyond the three-yard interference limit.
What’s that you say? You wish they wouldn’t blow that whistle so often?
Well, we agree with you there. Nobody likes a game that’s over-refereed and there’s always that tendency in football. It takes the play away from the players and gives it to the officials, and gosh, how dull that can be.