This being the football offseason, and since the NBA and Major League Baseball don’t capture my attention for very long, I watched the ESPNU Best of College Football series last night (not all four discs, just about an hour’s worth). I was watching the segment on the Top 10 Regular Season Games, and with every segment, ESPN offers the “Depth Chart”. Basically, it’s an honorable mention section.
The compilers of this Top 10 (most of which I am in agreement with), gave the 1984 Boston College vs. Miami Top 10 status, while leaving off the 1994 game between Michigan and Colorado. The ESPN writers and commentators who made the list really got something right here that fans usually get wrong.
A great moment in sports does not necessarily take place in a great game.
One of my pet peeves in sports is following a Super Bowl, a Bowl game, or any game that is won on the last play, commentators, writers, and fans are talking about where the game ranks in history. The principle of “Last In / First Out” does not apply in sports. Just because something is fresh in our minds, does not make it the best. We as fans have an annoying tendency to remember the last thing that happened in a game more than the game itself.
Look at those two games. Both games featured a powerhouse (Michigan, Miami) against a mid-level team (Colorado, Boston College). Both were regular season games. Both winning teams had that year’s Heisman winner (Doug Flutie, Rashaan Salaam). Both games were played at historic venues (The Big House, The Orange Bowl). Both games had plenty of future NFL players. Both games were won on walk-off Hail Mary’s.
So, what’s the difference? Why did one game get “Top 10” status, and the other didn’t?
The 1984 Boston College/Miami game ended 47-45, and was a back and forth shootout (in pouring rain, nonetheless) between two future Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Most of all, neither team had a solid control of the game for more than a possession at a time. This game would be remembered as one of the greatest quarterback duels in college football history even if the final play never happened.
The 1994 Colorado/Michigan game ended 27-26, and was largely a snooze-fest until the final two minutes. Colorado led 14-9 at halftime, and Michigan rallied and took control with seventeen points in the third quarter. Colorado scored both of their second half touchdowns in the final 2:16. In short, Colorado went over half the game without scoring a single point.
As you can see, there is a reason why the BC-Miami game gets constant replays on ESPN Classic, and the Colorado-Michigan game doesn’t (although, I must add that it is a little disconcerting hearing constant references to Rae Carruth throughout the telecast).
A great game is much like grilling the perfect hamburger. Most American men will tell you that they know what goes into it, and the methods involved, but very few really do. Just because you have ground beef, buns, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes doesn’t mean you have a great burger. You have the ingredients for a great burger, but just having the ingredients doesn’t guarantee perfection in the finished product. Football games are much the same. Just because you have two great teams, a large and loud crowd, a historic venue, a national audience, and a close score doesn’t mean you have a great football game.
The question still stands, what ingredients are necessary for a great game?
The teams involved in great games are usually flawed.
Super Bowls and National Championship games (pre-BCS and the current era) match up teams that have proven themselves to be the best in their league or conference (OK, not always true in the BCS, but that’s another discussion). Matching up the best teams usually means matching up teams that have the least amount of flaws, and flaws and imperfections are a big part of what makes football interesting.
This is why better games usually take place (in the NFL) in the conference championships, divisional round, or wildcard round. Twelve teams make the playoffs, and ten of them fall short of the Super Bowl. The ten that get knocked out usually fall short of the ultimate goal because of their weaknesses, but those same weaknesses can make for exciting games played between good but flawed teams.
In college football, ranked teams going up against unranked (or lower ranked) but respectable teams can be a good start. A flawed team that has been preparing for the best team on their schedule for weeks on end can make for an exciting sequence of events. Since the underdog has had this game underlined on their locker room schedule since spring drills, there may be plays, formations, or personnel packages that they have been holding back in preparation for this game. The element of surprise is exciting in football.
Both teams take chances in great games.
There are games that are exciting at the time because of the suspense of not knowing who is going to land the knockout punch, but they don’t hold up over time because they are boring once you take that element of suspense out. This past years’ LSU-Alabama game is a perfect example. Both teams waited for the other team to make a mistake for the entire game. Both teams played like boxers dancing around the ring, making head-fakes, but never really attempting a serious knockout blow. Whenever you see a game where a team attempts a lot of field goals, it is usually because they are playing not to lose instead of playing to win. There are few things more demoralizing than driving the length of the field only to turn the ball over, but I always thought that constantly settling for three points is just as frustrating. Wouldn’t you rather watch a game where the offenses (both of them) are taking legitimate shots at the end zone than always playing the percentages? I know I would. I want to see touchdowns, even if it may result in some turnovers in the process.
Great games have multiple changes in momentum.
There is nothing more frustrating than watching a game (as a fan) than seeing neither team taking real control of a game. If neither team is taking control, that means they aren’t taking any chances. Not taking chances goes back to that concept of playing not to lose instead of playing to win.
Forcing a punt or gaining a few yards’ worth of field position does not count as changing the momentum of a game. Think of what momentum means. Momentum is inertia. Momentum is football’s equivalent to a hundred-car freight train going seventy miles an hour. Inertia means you are going fast, straight ahead, with purpose. Changing that inertia means rolling along, minding your own business, then smacking head-first into an oncoming train going faster than yours was.
A change in momentum is driving the length of the field, about to take a two-score lead, only to throw a pick-six. A change in momentum is returning a kickoff for a touchdown, silencing eighty thousand maniacal fans in the process. A change in momentum is a trick play that works to perfection, or goes horribly wrong. Changing the momentum of a game is thinking that you have everything under control, and having it all disappear in an instant. Great games have this quality.
Both teams gain yardage and score points in great games.
Let’s face it: nobody likes a stalemate. Nobody ever wants to see two teams consistently go three and out and punt back and forth. Especially with the rule changes that have taken place in the last thirty years, there is no excuse for a team to not gain three hundred yards in a game. Think of the games that people still talk about ten, twenty, thirty years later. Not many of the final scores are in the teens, and none of them are in the single digits. Even if you count this past years’ LSU-Alabama game (regular season), the discussion is going to be the circumstances and hype surrounding the game and the stakes, not the game itself. This goes back to my argument about taking chances. Taking chances and calculated risks results in yardage gained and points scored.
Great games have unlikely heroes (even on the losing team).
Part of what makes a game great is seeing how teams adjust to changes in circumstances throughout the game.
- In the only puntless game in NFL history (at least in the regular season), Jerry Rice was out of the game after the first drive of the game due to a concussion. Steve Young had to adjust by throwing to John Taylor, Mike Sherrard, and Odessa Turner. Young still totaled over four hundred yards passing for the game.
- In the famous 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff that would become known as “The Game That Wouldn’t End”, backup quarterback Don Strock was inserted after David Woodley was pulled because of an ineffective first quarter and a 24-0 deficit. Strock threw for over four hundred yards and four touchdowns, including a ballsy hook-and-lateral play on the last play of the first half that put the Dolphins firmly in control of the game (for a little while).
- In what I believe to be the greatest college football game ever played, the 1984 Orange Bowl between Nebraska and Miami, Mike Rozier (Nebraska’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back) was knocked out of the game in the second half with a sprained ankle. Nebraska had to turn to backup Jeff Smith, and the passing of Turner Gill (this was a big deal, Nebraska ran an I-formation option offense). Gill ended up throwing thirty passes (a rarity for Nebraska), and Smith rushed for 99 yards, two touchdowns, including the would-be game-winning touchdown (had the two-point conversion been good).
These are just a few examples, but my point is that having an unexpected storyline present itself during a game can add to its greatness.
Great games don’t have lulls.
During the New York Giants’ Super Bowl XLII episode of America’s Game, Eli Manning says “If you’re TiVo-ing the game, just skip ahead to the fourth quarter”. What that tells me, is that while those first forty-five minutes are important in the context of the game, they’re boring to watch. You can still get the gist of the story without seeing any of the first three quarters of the game. That means that while the game had a great fourth quarter, it wasn’t necessarily a great game from beginning to end. It’s even funny to hear Eli Manning describe his first Super Bowl this way.
While watching a game, I don’t want to go entire quarters without seeing any scoring. With all the rules stacked in the offense’s favor, there is no reason to go through those long stretches without scoring. While I admit that if any of my favorite teams (Buffalo Bills, SC Gamecocks, New Mexico State, any of the service academies) win a 10-7 game, I am happy for the result, but I still don’t want to see it from a spectator point of view.
Great games usually have some element of controversy.
Be it a coaching decision, judgement call by the ref, or a questionable call altogether, I like to have a little bit of”what if”
following the game. It’s nice to have a little something to talk about that may or may not have gone quite right during the game. I don’t mean that I want to see flat-out blown calls, but it’s nice to have a little discussion point afterwards like:
- Should they have gone for two points there?
- Was that holding/pass interference/roughing the passer?
- Should they have gone for it on fourth down?
These are the basic building blocks of great games. The above attributes are the things that I look for when deciding if a game was great, or if it was just a great ending or a great individual performance.
To Be Continued…