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Was Vince Lombardi a game theorist?

By 11.21.13

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Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game
by Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez.
(Ballantine Books, 273 pages, $26)

The football doesn’t fall far from the tree, it seems. Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, so named for the apple-pondering scientist, makes good on the description found on its dust jacket flap: “[A] clever and accessible look at the big ideas underlying the science of football.”

Various scientific and mathematical phenomena are on display in football, but most of us do not notice them any more than the millions who flourished before Isaac Newton noticed gravity. In unpretentious fashion, this book discusses (I am quoting the authors’ delightful chapter headings) “The Divinely Random Bounce of the Prolate Spheroid,” “How to Turn A Big Mac into A Linebacker,” and “Why Woodpeckers Don’t Get Concussions,” and even answers the pressing question “How Is a Quarterback Like Your Laptop?”

As it turns out, Edisonian divergent thinking or trial and error methods, Nash’s game theory, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Lorenz’s chaos theory (also known as the “butterfly effect” and misrepresented by Ashton Kutcher in a bad movie some years ago), have much to do even with football at its most quotidian.

What does football have to do with Thomas Edison, John Nash, Werner Heisenberg, Edward Lorenz? Quite a lot, it turns out. According to St. John and Ramirez, the craftiness of defensive back Mel Blount exemplifies divergent thinking, the so-called Edison trait. Like Edison, Blount didn’t “spend much time pondering which [techniques] would work and which ones wouldn’t”: He just tried them. When Edison was inventing the lightbulb, the authors note, he considered more than 10,000 potential filaments. Mel Blount tested the limits of his powers as a defender; as he discovered that his bump and run method routinely went unpenalized, borderline muggings of receivers aside, he patented this technique as his own. The results? A Hall of Fame career and, eventually, a rule that bears his name today: The Mel Blount Rule, which dictates that a defensive player may only jam a receiver within the first five yards of scrimmage, lest he be flagged for illegal contact. To this day trial and error is a key component of any strong player’s approach to the game. 

While not the focus of St. John and Ramirez's book, pure mathematics makes the occasional cameo. In an amusing chapter entitled "Vince Lombardi’s Beautiful Mind"—a reference to the movie A Beautiful Mind, which starred Russell Crowe as the ever-mercurial John Nash—the reader is invited to consider football from the perspective of a game theorist.

How can one best win a game of two or more participants that is finite, skill rather chance-based, and zero-sum—9.9 times out of 10 the case in football—all while working in a system of perfect information (where all combinations of legal moves are known to both sides)? Game theorist Vince Lombardi’s answer was simple: Minimize casualties by gauging probabilities. Lombardi’s run-heavy style mirrored that very mentality, where ball and clock control served to minimize the consequences of the worst case scenario. As Lombardi sacrificed potential chunks of yardage by pass, opting instead to avoid big losses by sacks or interceptions, so too did Machiavelli (the first game theorist according to Nash) prefer to be feared instead of loved. Today, though the run plays less of a roll in minimizing casualties, the screen pass has risen to similar heights, as it seen essentially as the best of both worlds: a passing-run of sorts that suits the pass-heavy NFL style we have come to know better.

Before Heisenberg was the alias of Walter White in the popular drama Breaking Bad, he was a Nobel Prize winner who discovered that, at the quantum level, “our understanding of the smallest particles boils down to trade-offs.” We can’t know location and velocity of these particles in the way that we can with objects in the observable physical world, and the more specifics we think we know of the particles the lesser we know in reality. The zone-blitz, accordingly, has a similar effect on a quarterback. When he breaks down the pressure to a quasi-atomic level and focuses on a particular location and a potential velocity the blitz changes. For further reference, the authors compare this phenomenon to the shift in battle tactics in the Revolutionary War, where orderly formations appearing at a set location and time were countered by minutemen hiding in trees and brush. This is nothing if not thought-provoking.

How many times do we see purportedly innocuous events result in paradigm shifts? While not quite as innocuous as the flap of a butterfly’s wings, Greg Cook’s rise and fall illustrated the basics of the ripple effect theory. Cook was an up and coming quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1969 blessed with a howitzer arm. Unfortunately, his promising career came to a screeching halt due to an undiagnosed—and undiagnosable at the time—torn rotator cuff. The man who replaced him was Virgil Carter, who had the opposite skillset. Out of necessity, Hall-of-Fame-coach-to-be Bill Walsh developed an offense in Cincy that thrived on short routes and quick passing plays otherwise known today as “the West Coast Offense.” This offense reached its zenith with the 49ers of the ‘80s and ‘90s—under Walsh’s watch—where Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice made their Hall of Fame names. It remains influential: see Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly and the nuanced, up-tempo spread style that got him hired away from the University of Oregon before this season.

Newton’s Football forges ahead. This breezily-written but informative book should pique the interest of any serious football fan in the 21st century.

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About the Author

Matt Naham, originally from West Milford, NJ, is a recent graduate of Christendom College, where he graduated with a B.A. in English Language and Literature. While enrolled, he served as editor-in-chief of the school paper, The Rambler, for a year’s time. Currently, he is working as an editorial intern with The American Spectator, which has been made possible by the National Journalism Center, an affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation.