NFL, college football have fundamental differences
Posted: Friday November 10, 2006 2:34PM; Updated: Friday November 10, 2006 5:44PM
Peyton Manning's cool efficiency is representative of the NFL, while Brady Quinn's passion is more common in college football.
Robert Beck/SI and Al Tielemans/SI
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Sports Illustrated assigned me to Team SI NFL this fall, writing on America's Real Pastime. I've done some NFL coverage in the past, but much more college football. The differences between Sunday football and Saturday (or Thursday) football have been dogging me since August. My top eight:
1) The Traditions -- Every college football game is a holiday. Every NFL game is a board meeting. OK, that's an exaggeration. But in the college world, you don't just get the football game, you get a piece of college football history. Tiger Walk (Auburn), Script Ohio (Ohio State) and green jerseys (Notre Dame). Or you get history in the making, attached to a fresh theme (Rutgers Chopping Wood). It's hard to find a major college program that doesn't have some sort of personal touch. You come to Michigan, settle into the your seat and hear the band strike up "The Victors'' and watch the Wolverines jump up and touch the banner that's stretched across the field, well, you just know you're in the Big House.
The NFL has tailgating, fans wearing replica jerseys and your occasional Terrible Towels. But for the most part, the league is consciously uniform, right down to the uniforms. Seahawks vs. Bucs could just as well be Eagles vs. Raiders. Don't get me wrong: It's high-quality football across the board (that will be a common theme here), but in the larger sense, it all looks the same. The league is designed to produce 32 teams with 8-8 records, 12 of whom would reach the playoffs through complex tiebreaking procedures and then flip coins for draft order.
Put another way, on Saturdays Lee Corso wears mascot heads to pick college games.
2) The Speed -- Quick story: I broke into sportswriting a long time ago covering high school and Division III college football. Then after a while I began covering Division I college football. So I'm sitting in a press box in Syracuse doing my homemade play-by-play on a legal pad (still do it) and man, it's fast. I can't record one play before the next snap. Not because the time between plays is brief, but because there's so much happening on each play, and it happens so quickly that even the process of watching is accelerated.
So two Thursday nights ago I'm in Louisville covering the West Virginia-Louisville showdown at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. And the game is, I mean, wide open. Big holes on running plays, huge lanes in the passing game. Near the end of the game I stood on the sideline and said to colleague Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com, "Boy, after watching the NFL for three months, everything comes so easy here.''
Ivan pointed out, "More so in this game than most,'' and that's absolutely true. Neither Louisville nor West Virginia played a whole lot of defense. The look was entirely different Thursday night when Louisville was stymied for much of the night by Rutgers, which played suffocating defense.
But my overall impression remains. In the NFL, decisions have to be made much more quickly, holes close instantly and passes are threaded into smaller spots than in college. It's a faster, more precise game. Which makes perfect sense, because it's being played by the best of the college players.
Which leads to:
3) The cutbacks -- One play you see in college, but almost never see in the NFL, is the radical cutback. In another era it was called "reversing the field.'' You know the move: Running back (or quarterback) starts left, sees a wall of defenders and simply runs in the opposite direction, often beating the pursuit across the field for a sweet gain.
In the NFL, ballcarriers not only can't reverse their field, they can barely hesitate, lest they be swallowed up by the speed and ferocity of the entire defense. Gayle Sayers, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson. There have been -- and are -- a few guys in history who can freeze the defense. But as a rule on Sundays it's North and South, baby.