Thursday, February 7, 2008

Who Needs a Strong Armed Quarterback?

One of the really fun things about sports is the way in which you can watch a particular thread develop over the course of a season:

This football season, I was constantly going on to anyone who would listen (basically no one, though some were polite enough to pretend) that if a quarterback is any good, his top skill will never be considered "arm strength." It's a given that all good quarterbacks have strong arms, but it's the equivalent of saying that Tim Duncan's greatest asset is that he's tall. Sure, he wouldn't be anywhere without it, but that alone has extremely little to do with what sets him apart. Unfortunately, when you begin to think about what separates a good quarterback from a great one, the differences are extremely difficult to explain in ways that don't sound like they're rooted in some relativist, completely unquantifiable category.
So, over the course of this season, Bryan and I would watch football and I would ramble on about how Tony Romo has the ability to be a great quarterback if only because he always seems to be at his best when the play has fallen apart and there's nothing to do but make a decision on the fly. Brett Favre obviously has the same gift (and Michael Vick, once upon a time). Peyton Manning and Tom Brady do, too, though their gifts for experimentation and improvisation are subtler because most of their creativity is mental, e.g. deciding in their head when to abandon a certain play and throw to, say, the 5th option on a particular play.

When quaterbacks do this correctly the results are as close to artful as football gets. For example, check out Brett Farve throwing this shovel pass on the run. Even though this footage is kind of grainy, it gives in some ways an even better sense of the chaos in which a great quarterback makes some of their best decisions:

So, as the season progressed my football obsession revolved around looking for these moments where everything broke down in order to see what the quarterback would do. As my sports passions are always rooted in the players themselves, what more telling moment can there be than the times when everything falls apart and the script has to be abandoned? Romo and Farve both had great regular seasons and provided a number of moments that would make me jump out of my chair screaming, and I loved them for it. Others, such as Jon Kitna, the mistake-prone quarterback of my maddeningly bad Detroit Lions, failed to come through time and time again. Eli Manning, the quarterback I see more than any other due to my living in the New York market these days, also showed a lack of improvisational talent. At least until the Super Bowl...Down by four, third and five, fourth quarter, a minute left. Eli drops back and faces a full-out blitz. With members of the New England Patriots literally grabbing his jersey and starting to pull him down, he somehow escaped, freed himself from the crowd, and threw a pass to what had to have been the 3rd or 4th option on the play. Catch! Followed, a few seconds later, by a touchdown that would put the Giants aheaad for good. It was exactly the kind of moment I'd been watching for all year, and it happened to be the one that led directly to a team winning the super bowl! In the end, Eli Manning's ability to physically throw the ball so well in that situation wouldn't have made a relevant if he hadn't miraculously freed himself from the defenders and thrown a the kind of ball that only David Tyree was able to get his hands on (and make a spectacular catch of his own). Watching this season's theme (if in my eyes only) develop and conclude in such a satisfying way is, in the end, one of the reasons I fear I'll never be able to lighten up on my sports obsession...

No comments: