Deny Emotion and You Only See a Fraction of the Game

Valid reason, excuse, or denial. Three ways people might see Boyd's invocation of Favre. Photo by Elvis Kennedy.
Shakespeare and Favre? Naturally.  Photo by Elvis Kennedy.

Football and the analysis of the sport have become an increasingly intellectual pursuit of a physical game. However, the impact of emotion on the performance of players, plays, and a team remains as important as ever despite the desire to hide its seat at the table. 

There are a few things this post is not.

Although some of you may suspect it is, it’s not about bashing statistical analysis. Quality analytics will only help the game of football over time in the same way that quality practices of medicine helped mankind. Even if there is, has been, and will be arenas of film and statistical investigation where snake oil is stilled peddled under the guise of legitimacy, there will always be these covered wagons trolling the plains.

This post is not a call to action. I’m not trying to save the football analysis world with my points in this essay. And I’m not telling you to abandon the pursuit of knowledge using measurable or logical outcomes based on data or film study.

Most of all, everything I’m about to say is not something I claim I have all the answers. For that matter, I don’t claim I have any; I’m sharing thoughts on a subject to add further spark to an ongoing conversation with a select number of writers about the game and how the general public studies it.

Even if it reads otherwise, I’m not drawing firm conclusions. Keep this in mind and you might find what I have to say below worth exploring.

Football is as much an emotional game as it is intellectual

Photo of Sugar Ray Leonard by Mark Mathosian.
Boxing is a great amalgamation of physical brutality, strategic science, and extreme emotions. Photo of Sugar Ray Leonard by Mark Mathosian.

Sport, like any performance-related endeavor, has players, plays, and story lines that ascend to the realm of high art. Engaging in the analysis of art can be an exciting process, but it’s an imperfect endeavor.

I’m differentiating between analysis and criticism here. The root word for “criticism” is the Greek word “kritikos,” meaning “able to discern.” There’s judgment involved with criticism and a good critic is an educated person in his field.

Yet, art doesn’t appeal only to the most educated among us. While an intellectual endeavor for some, it’s not the only way it engages an audience.

Football is as much an emotional game as it is intellectual.  A coach, a player, and a team emotionally in tune with the tenor of a contest can gauge when an opponent has lost its will. There’s no algorithm for it that we know of, and the “tells” from an observational perspective haven’t been studied enough to determine if there’s any predictive value to a shoulder slump, the head pointing downward, or the hands resting on the the hips.

But most of us still have a good enough combination of innocence and awareness to intuit that emotion has a deep role in the outcome of every human interaction. Academics who use stats as their daily tools to conduct research also realize that cognitive bias — in simplest terms, being motivated by our emotions — is a real phenomenon.

Although we often consider cognitive bias a bad thing, it’s not always the case. If a team down 21-0 at halftime emotionally feels it’s still very much in the game when everything from an intellectual standpoint indicates the opposite, this belief-faith-logical gymnastics about positive thinking can be a helpful form of cognitive bias.

Emotion is often the motivating reason why an offense or defense chooses to repeat a play call when it might not be intellectually the best option. John Elway telling his offense, “We’ve got them right where we want them,” at the Broncos’ two-yard line in Cleveland Municipal stadium just seconds away from Browns’ Super Bowl berth was not a logical statement from the Denver quarterback. Neither was Joe Montana telling his teammates in the huddle that he spotted John Candy with less than two minutes left in the Orange Bowl while trailing the Bengals for championship.

Writers, scouts, coaches, and teammates wouldn’t praise players for their passion, energy, and resiliency if it wasn’t a huge factor in the game.  I know there are some who hate the term “momentum.” If I read his takes correctly, my colleague Aaron Schatz doesn’t believe in it.

I understand the thought that if at you can’t measure it why legitimize it as a concept?  But whenever I hear someone dismiss the concept of momentum, I have the sneaking suspicion that person has never competed in a physical contest where fear for one’s well-being is a real factor of influence in the competition.

If they have participated in sport then I’d be willing to bet they’ve blocked out the part where they may have emotionally given up once they got popped in the mouth or physically dominated. I’ve seen my share of people with a highly intellectual bent rationalize the moments they get physically dominated and ultimately emotionally flustered. They’ll blame the domination on the opposition breaking the rules with rough play, question the fairness of the game, and make the logical conclusion that they should stop making the effort.

The reaction then falls under a convenient opportunity to preserve an intellectual, non-emotional perspective about sport. But it denies something truly important about contests.

Before I get too far into this, I don’t know if this is Schatz’s experience and I’m not attacking his manhood or toughness. I am questioning if he’s ever truly competed in situations where the prospect of getting physically dominated with a side dish of pain was a part of his formative experiences. A lot of people have not engaged in sport at that level beyond early childhood and it’s easy to forget about the role of emotion in competition.

It isn’t solely about football, either. Wrestling and boxing are even better examples of highly intellectual sports that have equal doses of emotion as a competitive factor. Boxing isn’t called the Sweet Science because it sounds cool. Mike Tyson may have made some colossally stupid decisions in and outside the ring, but listen to him talk about the technique and strategy of boxing and he’ll display great quantities of intellectual skill.

The famous No Mas rematch between Sugar Ray Leonard and Robert Duran epitomizes the idea of one fighter allowing his emotions to override his skill. Say what you like about preparation and conditioning, but we’ve seen matches where physically or intellectually disadvantaged opponents still manage to beat the favorite. Duran lost his will.

Despite the fact that 25 of Leonard’s 36 victories were knockouts, his style was best known for is speed, technical precision, and timing to mentally confuse, physically tire, and psychologically overwhelm an opponent’s emotions rather than sheer power locating his opponent’s good night button at will.

Jim Brown was more like football’s Joe Louis or Muhammed Ali — a physical Superman who might have been average on his home planet, but on earth he was a dose of humanity’s future 50 years ahead of his time. Brown never missed a game in an era of football that has been outlawed by the Goodell regime. In his book, Out of Bounds, Brown discusses  his fears playing the game:

I was scared. Not physically. You can’t play in the NFL, not for long, if you’re frightened of taking punishment…What scared me was the Giants’ tactics. Specifically, I was afraid those tactics would stop me from performing. In my entire life, fear of not performing is the greatest fear I have ever felt. I wasn’t alone. Bill Quinlan, a defensive end, was one of the roughest, toughest guys on the Cleveland Browns. He would throw up violently before every single game. Quinlan’s boogieman was inside his stomach, tearing it away.

Being the start of my team, perhaps the most scrutinized man in the league, my boogieman was twenty feet tall. The pressure on any big star is somehow unique. You’re in the dressing room before the game, younger guys are glancing at you, veterans depending on you, 60,000 people want to be entertained–brother, you can’t have an ordinary game.

That shit would scare me to death. I’d be trying so hard to concentrate, start thinking, Wow! I think I would rather not be here.

At first when I had those thoughts I was miserable. I felt so damn guilty. Then I talked to other people, not my teammates or opponents, but men I respected in other professions, and learned that fear is perfectly natural. It’s essential–if men didn’t blink when you threw something at their eyes, if they had no fear, they wouldn’t survive…

I was set free! Once I admitted I had fear, I used that sucker. Made it my ally. Okay, I have a contest this afternoon, and I am Fucked Up. By gametime, can I take this totally messed up feeling, pull my stuff together? Can I come face to face with the Devil–and still perform? When I discovered I could, it was a hell of a piece of knowledge. By kickoff, I could grip my fear, transform it into power.

Unfortunately, during halftime against the Giants, I forgot all that. I didn’t have a fucking clue. Not only had they rattled my mind, the Giants had messed with my eyes. I felt like I was looking through a thick curtain. Then halftime ended. End of soul search. I though, Man, I got a game here. They go for my eyes again, I’ll deal with it then. 

I never discovered what I would have done. First time I got the ball, I broke a long one–touchdown. Next time we got the ball, I scored another strong TD. That was that: the Giants stopped going for my eyes. I think I know why. I’ve always felt that competition, stripped to its essence, is a battle of will. Skills, conditions, even luck may vary. Only one thing is constant: break an opponent’s will, you’ll beat him every time. Control a man’s mind, his body will follow.

Notice Brown said, ” control a man’s mind,” but the primary context of this passage dealt with the emotion of fear. A more accurate statement might have been, “take away a man’s control over his emotions, his body will follow.” After all, the origin for the word “will” is the Latin velle, “to wish.”

Wishing involves desire, which requires an emotional investment. Once a player’s emotional well-being super cedes his investment in his performance, his will is broken. While Brown says he wasn’t physically scared, I think he’s trying to differentiate between two types of physical fear–and one of them did scare him.

We’re also talking about how one of arguably one of the toughest players in football history perceived fear. Later in Out of Bounds, Brown shares a conversation with Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey about fear.

John said, “Shit, when I used to play against certain guys I knew were scared, first play I’d pop them upside their head. That was the end. I didn’t have to worry about them the rest of the game.”

John was right. Football is not about tricky plays. It’s about dominance. Physical and mental dominance.

What Mackey said hasn’t changed much 60 years later.  In my RSP Film Room episode with former NFL defender Ryan Riddle, my friend at Bleacher Report, drew upon his experience to discuss the emotional element involving Washington safety Shaq Thompson’s first-quarter hit on a UCLA defender.

 That was a nice hit…you know, you make a statement with something like that. These guys are trying to feel each other out. It’s like the first round (of a boxing or MMA fight), moving around that ring, and saying, Hey, you really want to play here? You really want to make those catches?  You’ll maybe think about that the next time you come around here. This is my house.

Despite every level of football tightening the rules on physical violence, the bodily intimidation factor will never go away as long as physical contact is an integral part of the game. Although a dominant ground game still breaks the will of the opposition in today’s NFL, the dramatic growth and emphasis of the passing game since the Jim Brown era means there’s a greater investment in factors other than brute force and physical punishment.

Don’t Underestimate the Psychological Power of Intellectual Domination

Yeah, I was "that guy"Photo by Football Schedule.
Wilson’s game is more Sugar Ray Leonard than Roberto Duran. Photo by Football Schedule.

One great hit can sap a player’s will immediately, but a series of intellectual defeats based on physical underpinnings of timing, strategy, and precision also creates enough confusion to instill fear and drain an opponent’s will. Do you think Johnny Unitas’ acumen as a play caller and timing with Raymond Berry didn’t create fear and awe?

Fran Tarkenton’s scrambles that tired out pressure and found easy passing lanes was often a back-breaker (look at Russell Wilson’s fourth quarter scramble and throw to Marshawn Lynch in Monday night’s game against Washington and you’ll see an emotional dagger). And the speed and grace of Sid Gillman’s passing offenses were enough to generate a career-oriented, existential crisis among defenders facing them.

Offenses that spread the field and the resulting hybridization of skill players have increased the strategic element of the game and the demand for speed and quickness. These changes have also upped the value of mental dominance as a common fear factor.

It’s no coincidence that as the strategic elements of the game have grown, so have the means to intellectualize it. The Combine, the Data Movement, ESPN’s Sport Science television show, and fantasy football all rely on these strategic and physical elements that can be weighed, measured, timed, tracked, and documented. These processes are provide layers of helpful information, but they can — even unintentionally — make an orphan of the emotional element of the game.

In an academic vacuum, the idea of  interdisciplinary research among kinesiologists and sports psychologists sounds like a fantastic way to change this growing notion that the emotional element of football has no valid place in analysis. However, imagine what it would take to survey the emotional changes of athletes and attempt to pinpoint broken will or momentum changes.

Can you imagine researchers asking football players questions or having the athletes wired for observation to immediately gauge emotions after the opposition mentally or physically dominates them? Sure, it would be an amazing breakthrough, but if you believe any player or team will ever consent to having their resiliency and toughness on the field psychoanalyzed, think again.

Players would fear how teams would use (and misuse) the data to judge their emotional fitness to play the game. Just imagine when an employee of one of these organizations leaks an individual’s data to the media and the general public and how it could ruin a career before it even starts. It could prevent an otherwise good talent from emotionally growing into the player he’s capable of becoming.

The emotional element of football is not invalid or obsolete because these newer methodologies lack the tools and technology to measure its impact on the field. We may have to do our own interpretation of emotional elements of the game and this analysis will be incomplete, but so are the film-based, strategy-inspired, and data-driven judgments that don’t factor the emotional impact at all.

Of course, there is no such thing as perfect information, but it’s important we don’t deny an element of the game because we can’t measure it the same way we measure distance traveled in space and time, technique, strategic results, or physical characteristics.

High art, regardless of the medium, has flaws and complexities that are sometimes beyond our grasp of logic

“Analysis” comes from the Greek word “analusis,” meaning “a breaking up,” which according to Wikipedia, the word “has also been ascribed to Isaac Newton, in the form of a practical method of physical discovery (which he did not name).”

In the context of studying football tape as a practical method of physical discovery, I much prefer analyzing moments of football rather than critiquing them. However, I’d be fooling myself if I claimed I never critiqued football players. I do it all the time.

Critiquing football involves a judgment like a ranking or determining a prospect’s ability to make the cut in the NFL. Although rankings and judgments are a part of my job that financially sustains me as a writer, I much prefer the analysis side: Taking apart a player’s game, learning how it fits together, and how it might fit in the pros.

A reason is the capacity for football to have an artistic layer. Great art often appeals to our emotions. Despite it’s power it can also be flawed. The perfection is often in its imperfections.

Brett Favre’s play was often high art even if there were moments where it was as lowbrow as some of Shakespeare’s characters. The Packers’ quarterback inspired seasons of coaches screaming No! to begin a play only to end it with a resounding Yes! 

Barry Sanders defied the logic of the running back position. Ask a coach if he’d teach a young running back to take the conceptual risks Sanders did and if you get anything different than Hell no, that coach either has the next Barry Sanders or a serious lack of coaching wisdom.

Great art breaks rules and transcends flawed ideas and limitations. It makes risky choices and succeeds in spite of them — if not because of them. And sometimes it defies logical explanation. There are performers, writers, and visual artists who are confounded by the logic of an educated critique where the critic sees far more in the artist’s work than what even the artist intended.

It doesn’t mean that what the critic sees is wrong. It also doesn’t mean that what the artist did was less artful because what the critic sees wasn’t a part of the artist’s conscious strategy.  Great football players and plays can have the same layers of complexity where intellect or logic doesn’t do justice to explain its quality.


8 responses to “Deny Emotion and You Only See a Fraction of the Game”

  1. great article. Emotion and momentum are key elements to understanding any sport. You must obviously know the basics of game plan etc but any fan at a playoff game can feel the palpable switch of momentum after a critical goal in hockey or TD in football, etc.

  2. […] It’s true that you don’t need to have played a sport to understand it theoretically (rules, strategies, etc.). However, I believe it’s truly impossible for someone to empathize with the intimidation and physicality involved with a violent, collision-based sport like football, boxing/MMA, or rugby. You might be able to understand, even sympathize. But you cannot empathize with the fear. […]

  3. […] It’s true that you don’t need to have played a sport to understand it theoretically (rules, strategies, etc.). However, I believe it’s truly impossible for someone to empathize with the intimidation and physicality involved with a violent, collision-based sport like football, boxing/MMA, or rugby. You might be able to understand, even sympathize. But you cannot empathize with the fear. […]

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