Game Plan From Outer Space

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Watching football on TV looks much easier than it really is. To do it correctly requires skill, concentration and, most importantly, practice. Throughout the season, you must maintain your football-watching "edge," which is why the serious fan takes up a position in front of the TV in August and doesn't budge until the final whistle of the Pro Bowl in February.

Let's cut straight to the delicate matter of gender: Both men and women can be talented at watching football, but men may have some kind of innate, genetic, Larry Summers-like knack for it. I've seen many women who were excellent at watching football, as well as throwing the shot put and crushing beer cans against their foreheads -- but just when you are beginning to respect them as human beings, they make a completely irrelevant comment about the quarterback being "smoldering."

Which brings us to the inviolable rules of watching football:

Do not announce that you think a player is "hot." Excessive references to any player's appearance will result in the observer being told to leave the TV room and go mend curtains or knit a doily or whatever it is that non-football fans do between August and February.

Never say, "At least they came close." This isn't a sport where everyone gets a trophy. There is no joy in "almost winning." Indeed it is not really appropriate to bring the more delicate, nuanced sentiments to viewing the game. Feelings must be binary: Exultation or despair. If your team wins, you are on top of the world. If your team loses, then you and everyone around you and everything in your life is contaminated with failure. (Sentimentalism exemption: At the very mention of the movie "Brian's Song," men are permitted to weep.)

At least once a game you must get into an argument about who was the best quarterback of all time. You must also pretend to know everything about players who retired decades ago, such as Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. Someone in the room must point out that Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr had great names. Everyone must then agree that the quarterback with the best name ever was Roman Gabriel.

Never feel guilty about stuffing your face with chips, salsa, chili dogs, etc. This is how you stay in football-watching condition. If someone stares at your protruding gut, or the dribble of mustard on your shirt, just say, "I'm in training."

Between games, study the internal anatomy of the knee, so that when you see a player horribly maimed you can say, coolly, and with authority, "He just blew out his anterior cruciate ligament." If the leg completely separates from the body, you are allowed to wince.

About half an hour after the quarterback debate has concluded, you are permitted to say, out of nowhere, "Did you know they named a town in Montana 'Joe'?"

Thou shalt fetishize good blocking. If there's one thing that separates the professional couch slob from the amateur, it's an ability to discern, amid the scrambling shapes on the screen, an excellent block by the pulling guard. The pulling guard is invariably a player who weighs 360 pounds. Like the flight of the bumblebee, the ability of the pulling guard to sprint is still being studied by top scientists. At the snap of the ball, he takes half a step back and runs parallel to the line of scrimmage, behind the center, then turns upfield to run interference for the running back, who will be a much smaller man, roughly the size of the pulling guard's most recent burrito. Ideally, the pulling guard will bear down upon a smaller, isolated defensive player, who will be so completely flattened that he'll have to be removed from the field with a spatula.

You may not discuss playoff implications before Halloween.

Once a game, you may make a joke about the ethnicity of Franco Harris being "Franco-American."

If an athlete in an interview answers any question with an original, creative, spontaneous and truly insightful remark, pinch yourself.

Only TV announcers, and not real people, are allowed to refer to the center of the action around the line of scrimmage as "the trenches." Likewise, only TV announcers may use the phrase "establish the running game."

As the game nears its conclusion, you must, without variance, ridicule the coach's "clock management" because he is not properly using his timeouts. Never mind that the coach is keeping track of dozens of raging behemoths and trying to call plays and listening to assistant coaches squawking in his ear -- and therefore might not be able to concentrate on the clock quite as expertly as you can sitting in your Barcalounger keeping track of your snacks.

Vince Lombardi: Discuss.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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