Football geekdom is a sickness. Just look at the all those burned-out professional Xs and Os wonks, the football coaches. They often sleep in their office, obsessing over formations and coverages, destroying all semblance of a normal life. Then there are the more casual geeks, who spend beautiful October Sundays huddled over their computers, eyes darting between the laptop screen and the Red Zone channel on television, poring over fantasy statistics. Such behavior is not natural.
On Super Bowl Sunday, however, it’s worth putting on a football nerd beanie. You can still watch the commercials and make snarky comments. You can discuss whether Beyoncé is actually singing at halftime. But pay at least a little attention to the game.
Why? Because even if you don’t watch football from September through January, or do so but don’t really care about the inner workings of the game, if you act like you know what you’re talking about at a Super Bowl party, you’ll impress everyone on the couch. You’re up on things. You’re spreading a little knowledge. And that can only help your cred, right?
Plus, you can fake your way through it. Here are five ways to sound smart about the Super Bowl. Throw them out there, see what happens. And after the Baltimore Ravens or San Francisco 49ers lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans, go back to not caring. For your football indifference, you should be getting the cheers.
(LIST: Top 10 Siblings in Sports)
1. Spot The Pistol. When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball, you’ll hear the commentators talking about their “Pistol” offense. But most people watching the game probably have no idea what that is. You can tell them: the Pistol is essentially a formation, where quarterback Colin Kaepernick stands a few yards behind the center, awaiting the snap. The running back stands directly behind him; in the traditional “shotgun,” the running back stands in front of the quarterback, or to his side.
What’s so innovative about that? With the running back behind the quarterback, the defense can’t see him. And that keeps the defense guessing. “It creates more conflict,” says San Francisco offense coordinator Greg Roman. “There’s no real tendency. Are you running right, are you running left? Is it a play action pass? You can’t really gauge anything if you’re the defense before the snap. And if that’s much of an advantage, we’ll take it.”
Former Giants center Shaun O’Hara, now an analyst for the NFL Network, also notes that in the Pistol, the running back is deeper in the backfield than usual. So if Kaepernick hands him the ball, the defense will have to chase him at unfamiliar angles. “It’s all about geometry,” says O’Hara.
Kaepernick ran the Pistol offense in college, at the University of Nevada, and had great success with it. Roman, the 49ers coordinator, first saw the formation in 2009, in a New Jersey high school game; he was out recruiting for Stanford, where he was an assistant. Roman wasn’t impressed. “I thought to myself, ‘why are they doing that?'” he says. Now he knows. And the Pistol might win his team a title.
2. Good Reads. If you see the 49ers leaving Baltimore’s defensive ends unblocked at the line of scrimmage, jump out of your seat and explain what’s about to happen, says SiriusXM radio host Ross Tucker, a former offensive lineman for five different NFL teams, including the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots. “Kaepernick is going to put the ball in running back’s stomach, and read the defense,” says Tucker. If the defensive linemen rush around the edges of the offensive line and into the backfield, Kaepernick will release the ball to the back, who will run it up the middle – presumably right past the incoming defenders from the side. If Kaepernick sees the unblocked lineman move toward the middle of the line of scrimmage – to defend against such a run – he’ll keep the ball and run to the outside, where those defenders used to be. Such cat and mouse games can decide the Super Bowl.
3. Bull Fighting. Battles at the line of scrimmage – which often go unnoticed by the casual fan, who’s watching the quarterback or running back or receiver or some other glory guy holding the football – can also decide the Super Bowl. And Tucker recommends watching Ravens rookie left tackle Kelechi Osemele – number 72 – and San Francisco defensive tackle Justin Smith (#94) go at each other. “Osemele is my favorite offensive lineman to watch, because he’s so physical,” Tucker says of the 6’5″, 335-pound rookie. “And Justin Smith is the best bull rusher in the NFL”
So point to Smith and say “that guy is a bull rusher.” What, exactly, does that mean? “Bull rush means your walking your guy back into the lap of the quarterback,” says San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Smith will run right through you. As a tackle, as opposed to a defensive end, Smith grapples in the middle of the scrum at the line of scrimmage. “You’re working in the phone booth in there a little more,” says Smith, who is 6’4″, 285 pounds. “You don’t really have much room for moves. Which works out well for me, since I really don’t have any.”
Not true, says teammate Alex Boone, a San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman who faces Smith in practice. (“You don’t want to be on the other end of that,” Boone says). Smith — who grew up on a cattle ranch in rural Missouri, and is known as “Cowboy” around the Niners locker room — uses something called a “hump move,” according to Boone. It’s pretty simple to explain. “He lifts you up off the ground, literally,” says Boone. “He just picks you up and walks away. He does a great job of it.” And such a “hump move” is legal? “This is football last time I checked,” Boone. “It ain’t soccer.”
Even Osemele’s teammates on Baltimore’s offensive line say they’re pumped to see him battle Smith (they might want to focus on their own assignments). “He’s one of the strongest players I’ve ever seen on film,” says Osemele. Smith is battling a triceps injury, but since he gets so much power from his lower body, the hurt might not affect him.
So how does Osemele, a wide-eyed, smiling rookie with a gentle-giant vibe, stop Smith? “I just have to use my hands,” he says. “I have long arms, I was blessed with that. So I have to take advantage, punch him, and keep him off my chest.” Like the hump move, punching is permitted. “When you punch a guy, that creates some separation,” Osemele says. “He can’t bull you if he can’t get into your chest.”
Osemele’s parents were born in Nigeria (he grew up in Houston). His first name, Kelechi, means “Thank God” in Igbo, a native language in Nigeria. Something for Ravens fans to shout on Sunday night, if Smith doesn’t get a sack. Kelechi.
4. Flacco Chooses Sides. On Baltimore’s opening drive, point out that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco needs to keep things right. Because when he throws to the left side of the field, he’s somewhat horrendous.
Many right-handed quarterbacks have problems throwing the ball to the left side of the field, since their arms must come across their bodies. The motion is just not as natural. Aaron Schatz, founder of the analytics site Football Outsiders, notes that Flacco really struggles. During the regular season, Flacco completed just 49% of his passes to the left side of the field, and averaged 5.1 yards per play. On the right, he completed 63% of his throws, for 7.8 yards per play. Down the middle, Flacco has a 59% completion rate, for 9.7 yards per play. “The 49ers should shade their safeties on the right side of the field,” says Schatz, “and force Flacco left.”
If the Niners plan on using this strategy, they aren’t saying so. When Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is asked if he’s aware of Flacco’s right-to-left deficiency, he smiles. “We’re cognizant of everything,” Caldwell says. Is he going to stay away from the left side of the field? “We don’t avoid anything,” says Caldwell. “We have to adjust. That’s our charge.”
5. Torrey Time. Keep a close eye on Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith, number 82. Find him, and look to the edges of your HD TV. If no San Francisco defensive player is backing up whomever is covering Smith at the line of scrimmage, scream “Flacco’s going deep!”
Smith is Baltimore’s speediest receiver, a guy who realized he could fly at a young age, while playing Red Rover. And Flacco can chuck a ball seventy years downfield. Will Flacco really take a shot downfield every time he sees Smith one-on-one, with no safeties deep as a backstop? “Joe will,” says Smith. “He’ll always take chances.” Smith says Flacco will often scrap the more conservative play that the down and distance calls for. “Some of the plays we’ve made, the ball probably shouldn’t go there,” says Smith. “But if Joe likes the matchup, he’ll take it.”
Smith can expect some opportunities. The 49ers say the aren’t going to play a safety deep on Smith every time. “You can’t do any one thing in the NFL,” says Vic Fangio, San Francisco’s defensive coordinator. “He’ll have some help. Sometimes he won’t.” Says San Francisco cornerback Carlos Rogers: “Oh yeah, we’re confident enough to go one on one. Our defensive backs have been in that situation a lot. We’ve made plays on guys just has fast as him, just as quick as him. We’re going to have to make some more in the Super Bowl.”
So true, Carlos. And we football geeks – for a day, at least – will be watching.