Where football stands alone

With the NBA and the NHL closing their 2015 seasons over the last 2 nights, this avid sports enthusiast got to thinking. In the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s hard to imagine this championship-contender having any shot at the title without LeBron James in the lineup. What’s more interesting to me though is that without LeBron’s basketball mind and his in-game audibles, the Cavaliers might not have escaped their match-up with Chicago en route to the finals. Check out the play below. It’s been reported that LeBron outright changed his coach’s play prior to the buzzer-beater.

Football is no different in the sense that audibles are part of the game. In Football though, even those audibles have come top-down from the coach and his positional assistants. Plays in football are designed in layers on a much more comprehensive manner than most open-skilled sports. Take hockey for instance. In my opinion ice hockey is among the most improvisational sports played at the professional level. A coach might have his “set-play” off of a face-off, but planning a set of plays for more than 15 seconds is an exercise in futility. Due to the running-time and the dynamic changes in opposition positioning, open-skilled sports like hockey, soccer, basketball, etc., rely on coaching differently than in football.

Consider what training camp means in the world of professional football. Sure, it means that new guys have their shot at cracking a roster. That’s no different from any other sport. In football though, training camp is a time of learning, and installing to a degree that just might leave an amateur athlete’s head spinning. Having been privy to a few offensive line “shop-talks” I can assure you that everything from terminology, positioning, or even foot placement is on much higher-level of understanding than most would realize. It’s this type of preparation in football that leads me to my general thesis of this article. Coaching in football has the most profound, and tangible in-game effects relative to all other professional sports.

Calgary Stampeders' special teams coach Mark Kilam, wearing black, goes over plays during second half CFL action against the Ottawa RedBlacks in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.  (CFL PHOTO - Larry MacDougal)

Calgary Stampeders’ special teams coach Mark Kilam, wearing black, goes over plays during second half CFL action against the Ottawa RedBlacks in Calgary, Alberta on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (CFL PHOTO – Larry MacDougal)

Of course, that is not to say anything negative about the improvisational skills that our players possess. What I mean is that the structure of the game lends itself to being dependent on coaching, every play. A football play lasts at most 25-30 seconds (should a player bust loose and run the length of the field). Because that window is so small, detailed analysis and planning can account for just about every contingency that might arise in that time. The result? Head Coaches, Offensive/Defensive/Special Teams Coordinators, Positional Coaches, and Statisticians have their hands on every play. The basis of every movement on the field has come top-down from coach to athlete. Certainly, athleticism provides players opportunities to add their own flares to each play, but throughout improvisation the coaches’ foundations remain grounded. Running backs like Jon Cornish or Andrew Harris might well have to shake a few defenders off themselves, but more times than not, they are running through the holes that were prescribed to them. With all of that said, consider this: professional football players might be different athletes because of this inherent structure.

How often do you hear about the “classroom” in other sports? Sure, most athletes watch a great deal of game footage, but this is different. Today, and just about every other day from May-November, players in the CFL are required to show up and learn. They are instructed, they are aided, and at times they are even tested. All of that preparation sets football apart from the vast majority of professional sports. Our athletes in the CFL need to be students for the duration of their careers. When they cease to learn, they cease to fit ever-changing structures imposed by their coaches. When that happens, it’s typically time for another student to take that place in class.

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