Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Football is Chess"

Rich Cohen's new book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football provides a behind the scenes account of one of the most dominating teams in NFL history. In a Wall Street Journal excerpt, Cohen explains that the 15-1, Super Bowl champion Bears faced their greatest challenge not on game days but rather in practice when their offense battled the innovative "46 Defense" invented by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Coach Mike Ditka constantly feuded with Ryan but Ditka could not fire Ryan because Ryan had cut a special deal with Bears' owner George Halas.

Cohen, using insight gathered from an interview with Chicago safety Doug Plank, describes how Ryan's defense wreaked so much havoc:

"Buddy operated by numbers," Plank said. "There were no names. You were either an adjective, and not a very complimentary one, or you were the number on your jersey. I was 46. Being a number was an honor. It meant you weren't an adjective. Here comes this master sergeant from the Korean War and he started to develop and encourage pride in being part of a special unit, a defensive squad."

In his first years in Chicago, Ryan was coaching mostly mediocre players. On many days, the Bears were outclassed. To compete, he had to improvise. "He was experimenting with defenses," Plank said. "He was going wild, looking for some way to generate a pass rush. You'd go into a meeting and see a bunch of crazy formations on the board. He'd go through each and say, 'OK, here's what we're going to try.' And someone would say, 'What do you call it?' Buddy didn't use X's and O's.

"When he put things on the board, it was numbers. He named formations after the number in the center of the formation. So one morning we go in and sure enough there's a new defense with my number in the middle: the 46."

In the standard 4-3 defensive alignment, the offense's center usually wasn't "covered," meaning no one lined up directly in front of him. This usually allowed the center to double-team a pass-rusher. But Ryan moved a linebacker to the line of scrimmage, then shifted Plank into the gap left by that linebacker. This meant none of Ryan's rushers could be double-teamed.

On a blitz in Ryan's defense, another linebacker or safety might creep up to the line and hide behind a big defensive end. As a result, there were often more rushers than blockers, which is why, in 1985, it often looked as if the Bears had too many players on the field. Buddy called the hidden blitzers free runners. "Confuse the offense until they have no idea where you're coming from--that is what creates a free runner," Plank said. "A free runner is an unblocked defensive player, and he gets to the quarterback so much faster...When a free runner hits the quarterback, the quarterback flies through the air."

In fulfilling an age-old playground fantasy, Ryan had decided to hell with it, and seemingly sent all his guys after the quarterback with a simple mission: Nail him. Rather than try to cover everyone, Ryan decided to short-circuit the offense by taking out the quarterback. As boxers used to say: Kill the brain, and the body will follow.

"Football is chess," Plank said. "You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king, I win."

Plank's analogy is apropos on more than one level: football and chess are both very strategically complex games and football and chess are both very violent games. The latter assertion may seem dubious to anyone who has only played chess casually with friends/relatives but tournament chess is violent, as noted by Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek:

It doesn't hurt your body, but your brain, your ego. Instead of concussions chess players suffer humiliation after a terrible loss. They start to question their confidence, doubting the worthiness of what they do.  

Opposing quarterbacks had to stay strong in the face of the way that Ryan's defense sought to "kill the brain" and tournament chess players face a similarly daunting challenge: they must stay mentally and emotionally strong to avoid having their brains killed by the stresses and strains imposed by hours of relentless competition.

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