Posted on | November 11, 2011 | 44 Comments
“There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bulls–t, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72
When I was 12 years old, the Sweetwater Valley Red Raiders got a new coach, Terry Kipta. Unlike many of our other rec-league coaches who had never played beyond the high-school level, Coach Kipta had been a starting lineman in college and had even spent a year or two on the lower rungs of pro ball.
We had a battle for quarterback that year, because there was a kid named Latimer who had previously played halfback, but had worked hard in the off-season on his passing. He actually had a better arm than our quarterback, but Latimer had a goofy sense of humor and thus was judged deficient in the kind of “leadership qualities” desirable in the quarterback role. Also that year, we had an end named Sims, a lanky kid with blinding speed, and this combination of Latimer and Sims led to a certain magic.
Coach Kipta was the first coach in our league to use what was called a “pro set” formation on offense: Two running backs, a split end and a wingback who could line up either as a flanker (outside the tight end) or on the other side in the slot between the tackle and split end. In the early 1970s, the triple-option wishbone was the most common offense, although some teams used the power-I or even the old straight-T.
One of the plays Kipta used was a halfback option pass. We practiced and practiced that play, and used it with devastating effect.
Our very first game of the season, when we came out on offense, broke the huddle and lined up, it was clear that our opponent had not prepared to defend against the pro set. Their coaches started yelling for their linebackers and defensive backs to cover the flankers, and there was a Chinese fire drill as the opponents went scrambling around to try to get in position. And then we did the “silent soldier.”
The “silent soldier” was another sneaky genius trick in Coach Kipta’s bag, The quarterback called “down,” “set” and then – nothing.
However, we were counting silently inside our heads: “Thousand one, thousand two . . .” So if it was “silent soldier 3,” the center would count to three before snapping the ball, at which time the whole play went into motion simultaneously. The other team, naturally expecting the quarterback to call “hut-hut-hut” as the signal for the snap, would be caught off guard, a step behind, unless they had been relentlessly drilled (as all defensive players should be) to watch the ball instead of listening to the quarterback’s signals.
Our opponents had never seen anything like the pro-set offense, and had never encountered the “silent soldier,” so they were already badly off-balance when our center Royce McAllister snapped the ball without warning. Caught by surprise from the start, the play they saw developing looked for all the world like a standard toss-sweep, as the quarterback pitched the ball to the halfback Latimer. The opposing linemen, of course, didn’t take long to notice that those of us Red Raiders on the line (I was at right guard) didn’t “fire out” across the line of scrimmage but instead were forming a protective pocket of pass blocking.
Their linebackers were completely fooled, however, and by the time any of the defensive linemen (and their coaches on the sideline) started yelling “Pass! Pass!” the linebackers were already chasing toward Latimer under the assumption that he was running a sweep. The other running back was there to block for Latimer – who, of course, had the option of running if he saw an opening – but instead he was looking downfield for Sims, who was racing deep on the fly down the right sideline.
We had practiced that play over and over, you see, and our opponents had never seen anything like it. Between the unusual formation and the “silent soldier” snap-count, their defense was confused and off-balance because, in those days of wishbone triple-option football, no team in that league ever threw the bomb on the first play from scrimmage until Coach Kipta’s Red Raiders did it – and did it on a halfback option pass.
Latimer unleashed his lanky arm and his pass went spiraling downfield in a precise arc to where Sims was three steps ahead of the defensive back. Latimer led him just right (I tell you, we had practiced it over and over) and Sims didn’t have to break stride as he scooped in the pass and raced straight into the end zone for a touchdown.
Mr. Brown, whose son Robbie was our tight end, snapped a picture of that play at just the moment Sims reached out to catch the pass and, at the end-of-the-year Red Raiders award banquet, Sims received an 11-by-17-inch framed enlargement of that photo. We used the halfback option pass sparingly that season – never more than once a game – and as I recall, the only variable in its success was if Sims dropped the ball. But the play was never more beautifully executed than it was on that first play from scrimmage in our first game of the season, when our opponents were caught completely by surprise.
Now, why did I tell that story? Am I just lost in nostalgia, re-living the glory of my youth? Or is there a moral to the story?
There is no such thing as an unfair advantage.
In any competition, each competitor has advantages. The key to success is in maximizing your advantages, employing your strengths to greatest effect, and there is nothing in the rulebook that requires you to explain to your fellow competitors how you plan to win the game.
Al Davis, the legendary owner of the Oakland Raiders who recently died, had a famous motto: “Just win, baby.”
In the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, it is a substantial understatement to say that Davis’s Raiders did not always adhere strictly to the rules. But infractions like holding and unnecessary roughness are only penalties if the ref throws a flag, and Oakland’s outlaw team of yore seemed to count the occasional 10- or 15-yard penalty as the necessary cost of doing business according to Al Davis’s motto.
And let’s be honest: Everybody in football breaks the rules sometimes, or else there would be entire games played without a penalty flag ever being thrown.
Is it a fair analogy to say that politics works the same way? I’ve been criticized for saying that the “Blame Perry” response that the Herman Cain campaign used last week – blaming Rick Perry’s campaign for the Politico story about sexual harassment allegations against Cain – was “pure genius” as strategy. Mark Block told me that he still sincerely believes that the Perry campaign was responsible for pushing that story. And I’ve said all along that my gut-hunch suspicion was the same.
Suspicion is merely suspicion, and circumstantial evidence is not proof, which is as true of the allegations against Cain as it is for Block’s casting blame on Team Perry. But if I were working on Team Perry – or any other rival campaign – and had known of these decade-old accusations against Cain, would I make sure the press found out about them? You’re damned right I would. And on the other hand, if I were working on Cain’s campaign and these accusations suddenly popped up in the press just about the time it looked like Cain had established himself as the GOP front-runner, I would automatically suspect that a rival Republican’s campaign had pushed it.
Cui bono? You can say that there is no proof that another Republican campaign pushed the Politico story, but you cannot say that it’s because Republican campaign operatives are too decent and humane to do such a thing. Some of my best friends are Republican operatives, and it’s not the kind of job that attracts a lot of Nice Guys. Hell, they brag about what ruthlesss cutthroats they are.
Maybe Block was wrong to suspect the Perry campaign, and Block has admitted it was wrong to blame Curt Anderson by name. But when a candidate is targeted by the kind of allegations made against Cain, it’s hard to say that the target is obligated to obey the Marquis of Queensbury Rules in defending himself. The Cain campaign was in crisis mode, with everything on the line, and a fight for survival can be judged by no standard except whether the fighter survives.
Let people condemn Mark Block as a loose cannon, an incompetent manager or an unscrupulous son of a bitch. Block’s reputation was already pretty shady, and he probably doesn’t care what any pundit thinks of his personal character at this point. Block has exactly one job, to get Herman Cain elected president of the United States. Thirteen days after Politico broke the story that many people expected would destroy Cain’s candidacy, Cain remains very much undestroyed.
Call it luck. Call it dirty politics. Call it whatever you will, and it makes no difference to me, because I am merely the sportswriter in the press box covering the game. But I think that if you could ask the late Al Davis what he thought about it, his answer would be three simple words.
“Just win, baby.”