How do you watch football on TV?

American Football, of course. The college season has already begun, and the NFL is following close behind. I feel unprepared. My fandom and viewing skills have atrophied while in grad school. This is due to a variety of factors, namely that I felt like I didn’t have enough time to watch football, and I couldn’t watch my team, The Redskins, while living in Iowa.

But things are different now. For one, I’m not in grad school anymore; I’m unemployed. I have all the time in the world. Plus, I have decided, after another off-season full of Dan Snyder’s shenanigans, that I am renouncing Redskins fandom until he stops being the owner.*

*This could be a long time, although we’re inching closer to a crazed assassin scenario.

So anyway, I’ll be watching football again, as a liberated fan, and I need some tips. Not tips on who’s the Team to Watch, but tips on watching teams. What do you do with your eyes and brain as you watch a football game? Do you take it in as gestalt? Do you prioritize watching certain players, certain positions? Or is it simply a matter of keeping your eye on the ball? It just seems like there’s so much information in each play, too much to really process. Basketball seems barely manageable, but football has more than twice as many players to follow!

1. On broadcasts, you can’t really see downfield. Doesn’t this drive you crazy? How do you deal with the missing information? I think I tend to undervalue the contributions of receivers/cornerbacks because I only see bits and pieces of their struggle.

2. How do statisticians keep track of football? I understand what items they record and why, but how to they maximize their efficiency? How do they manage their focus?

3. I feel like I don’t have a very good understanding of O-Line and D-Line, even though they’re right in front of me on the screen. I blame this, again, on paying too much attention to the guy with the ball. At what point do you switch focus from one element of the game to another?

4. What do the O- and D-Line players do after the play goes deep downfield? Are they basically standing around? Are they following, huffing and puffing, in case there’s a fumble recovered by the defense?

5. What kinds of trends do you look for in the early parts of a game? When I watch college basketball, I like to keep track of points in the paint, because they seem like a more reliable indicator of future success.

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6 Responses to “How do you watch football on TV?”


  1. 1 Matt Thomas September 9, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Excellent questions. That you’re even asking them suggests that maybe football and TV aren’t as made for each other as we like to think. (Googling “How to watch football on TV” yields some interesting results, including at least one book.) And I’m not sure broadcasting advances like HDTV are changing things all that much. Viewers are still at the mercy of what networks chose to show, right?

    Let me address your questions one at a time.

    1. Yes, I hate that you can’t see downfield (interesting that this is one word), thus missing all sorts of stuff every play, namely the type of coverage the defense is in and the routes/patterns the receivers are running. This is one of the things I try to pay attention to when I go to games and can see the whole field.

    2. I don’t know enough about this one, in part because it doesn’t seem like the sort of statistical, Moneyball-style thinking that’s taken over baseball and basketball (albeit more slowly in basketball’s case) has been applied to football in the same way, though football clearly is all about statistics, just not always ones people are aware of. 40-yard dash times at the NFL combine, for instance, are hugely important for evaluating certain players. So are Wonderlic scores. When it comes to on-the-field stats, I do know that who gets credit for a tackle, like assists in basketball, can be somewhat arbitrary.

    3. Line play is really underappreciated. I say that not only as a former high school defensive lineman, but as someone who believes the old adage about the game being won at the line. Generally speaking, offensive lineman are either trying to protect the QB so he has time to pass or open up holes through which a back can run. Usually they’re in one-on-one matchups with defensive lineman or defensive ends. You can try to watch for these matchups (left tackle vs. defensive end is usually a good one) or you can watch to see which side is pushing the other side back. It can be pretty hard to see what’s happening at the line when watching a game on TV though since as soon as the ball moves forward or back the camera moves away from the line, often zooming in as well, thereby reducing your view of the field in the process.

    4. On pass plays offensive lineman aren’t allowed to go more than five yards downfield. On run plays they can, and often do — it just takes them longer. Defensive lineman can technically go anywhere (sometimes they even drop back into coverage to mess up screen plays), but most often they seem to move forward and backward five yards or so, and sideways maybe ten yards or so.

    5. In the early part of the game, I try to pay attention to whether an offensive can get first downs. If they can, not only can they usually score, but wear out a defensive. If they can’t get first downs, that usually means their offensive isn’t clicking, which then means they can’t get into an offensive rhythm. And if they can’t get into an offensive rhythm early (e.g., establish the run to set up the passing game, establish the passing game to keep the defensive on their toes, and so forth), the defensive begins to dictate play, and the offensive might never recover. (It works the other way around too. If a defensive is never able to get into a defensive rhythm, they’ll get steamrolled.) I tend to think the best games are ones where offensives and defensives and special teams get into their rhythms and every aspect of the game is a contest.

  2. 2 againstacedia September 9, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    thanks Matt, for that wonderfully detailed comment! RE: #2, I’m not doing a good job explaining what I’m looking for. I’m thinking of the statisticians who work for live tv and supply the announcers with numbers throughout the game. I’m guessing the numbers they produce are pretty precise, but I wonder how many statisticians are employed and how they strategically view the game as it unfolds to improve their recording speed.

    TV coverage makes the game feel seamless by inserting multiple replays and smooth transitions to commercial breaks, so I guess statheads can play catchup during those moments, but I get the impression that their jobs are still intense, and they must be flying by the seats of their pants every sunday. I pity the guys–what do they do to unwind, watch sports?

  3. 3 Karla September 9, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    things i look for/pay attention to during the most wonderful time of the year:

    A) I compare the 2 teams – look at the O and the D lines – which look bigger? Which look faster? Is there a noticeable difference? And does it seem to make a difference?

    B) If a team is up by a lot – is it because the other team is out coached or something psychological? Or does the team with more points just have more talent?

    C) conference gossip. the ACC and the Big East have a lot to prove this year – and so far the ACC’s not doing so hot (Thanks FSU). I pay attention to how people – fans on message boards, announcers, sideline reporters like Rob Stone and Erin Andrews, and bloggers talk about the conferences and whether that popularity contest shows up in the T25 that coming Sunday.

    D) Clock management.

    E) I look at the Head coaches’ faces a lot – if you watch enough football and read enough – you get to know on-field personalities of coaches – and you can read their faces to get a better feel for whether or not YOU the viewer should be nervous. If my team is down by 7- with 11:45 to go in the 2nd half and my coach doesn’t look nervous – I’m not either.

    F) Students and Fans in the stands – how cute (or not cute) are their fans? Does it look like these people eat well, care about their appearance and exercise regularly? Or not? You want to put yourself in good company – and root for teams with good fan reputations. At least you do if you don’t have money riding on it. When scanning the crowd you might want to ask the following: Are the girls in cute sundresses or do they look trashy and sloppy? Do the male students look like contestants on tool academy or do they look like fine young upstanding college students having good clean semidrunk fun? The fan base says a lot about the school and what behaviors they will and won’t tolerate from their team. Example of this in action in a bad way: Miami, OSU. Trashy, unhealthy, and most never set foot on a college campus. Example of this in action in a good way: Auburn or USC. Classy cute, put together, friendly.

    G) Cheerleaders/Dance team: cute wholesome girls a la USC Songirls – or do these ladies look like they might be dancing at other – shall we say – more seedy establishments? A team/school that disrespects its spirit squads is a team you want to root against. bad form. bad karma. very tacky.

    H) The QBs jersey – is it clean or does it need to go to the cleaners? If it’s super dirty – then the line hasn’t been doing a very good job of protecting him. Might be an indication of poor communication or fatigue.

    I) Penalties – if a team is getting too many penalties – something ain’t right.

    J) Passes – complete or incomplete – pay attention to how passes are completed and if they aren’t completed – why? Is it because the receiver drops the ball? That could signal a coaching issue? Is the ball consistently overthrown by the QB? That could be a coaching issue also – but with a different coach. Look for patterns. You’ll be less surprised when stuff happens.

    • 4 againstacedia September 10, 2009 at 4:14 am

      thanks Karla. At my college (U.Va., which lost to the College of William and Mary [!] last week)sundresses were basically the uniforms of female fans; men wore dress shirts and ties. Unfortunately, those fashion choices seemed more like an invitation to douchebaggery at the time.

      I know Matt follows USC and you follow South Florida, but it sounds like you also root for some other teams, albeit on a secondary or tertiary tier of fandom. What’s that like psychologically? When I root for my primary team or player, I get queasy inside during every play–for instance, watching Federer last night made my stomach yo-yo. But I usually only feel that way for one team/player per sport. I’m not tearing my hair out over Nadal, even though I’d like to see him in the final. Do you get worked up over every team you follow? Or do you portion out your fandom differently: “I root for team X at 60% strength”? Does this process feel intuitive or carefully manufactured?

      I’ve always felt like my secondary rooting interests are ordained by my sense of cosmic justice. I don’t think this is terribly unique, but other people would probably define cosmic justice differently than I would.

  4. 5 Karla September 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

    hmmmm.. lets see. I root for teams that could help my team’s rankings and teams that make the conference stronger. But it comes down to karma and fans. I think football is associated so much with chunky drunk sloppy people who aren’t that educated and have a heard mentality – i root for teams with more preppy fan bases for that reason. What alumni association watch party would I rather go to – and that’s how i make my decision when it’s a toss up.

    that said – I really don’t get caught up in it psychologically I just pretend I went there or have some emotional investment. It’s fun to root for a team you really have little or no connection to – its really fun actually because if you lose – it doesn’t ruin your week! When USF lost to RU 2 years ago – I cried. hard. and i was upset for at least 5 or 6 days. When BYU won. I was so happy! I was rooting for them because I think they are classier than OK and Ok plays dirty and has trashy fans. but if they had lost I wouldn’t have been that upset. But its the idea of foot ball and the idea that these kids are playing their heart out with so much on the line and that fans have so much invested – i want to be apart of that emotion even though i might not have gone to BYU – just for 2.5 hours. Great therapy. Its better than pills!

  5. 6 Karla September 10, 2009 at 11:19 am

    addendum: not that preppy people cant be douche bags. they can – but they look nicer and generally smell nicer than those on tool academy. and im just looking at them on TV not dating or befriending these people.


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